Good Kids, Bad City - Kyle Swenson



Cleveland, March 2011

Start in close with the pavement. This is a Cleveland story, so there will be some abused infrastructure in the mix. Asphalt chopped and diced by winters past, roadways split like bad fruit—eyesore miles in all directions. There are places in the city where winter and neglect and budget priorities have knifed open the street, revealing the old brick or cobblestones below, history riding under the modern routes. In Cleveland—and in a Cleveland story—the past is always near and persistent.

This particular no-account chunk of municipal pour was just a bent elbow of sidewalk on the city’s eastern lip. Midmorning traffic floated by steadily, spinning off the streets to the north coiling around University Circle, a prim collection of hospitals, college greens, and museums. The money there—the new money reaching up in abstract glass medical buildings, the old money anchored in beaux arts marble and stone—was a one-eighty contrast from the surrounding neighborhoods, among the poorest in the country. The drivers slinging past us like pinballs in the chute likely had stopped paying attention to the blight long ago. I had. I’d probably driven past this street corner hundreds of times without ever eyeballing the spot where we were now standing.

We were an odd pair, a mixed-race Laurel and Hardy with twenty-odd years stacked between us. Me: skinny, twenty-five, white, shivering in a parka, fingers wrapped around a spiral notebook, sneakers knocking rocks into the gutter. Kwame: fifty-four, black, athletically built from head to toe, meaty hands stuffed into his hoodie pocket. He usually gave off a friendly vibe, his cheeks tending to wander up his face into a half smile. But today his mouth was a tight nervous dash, his eyes clocking the surrounding street.

Perhaps he was placing his memories up against what he was seeing now. Weeds and grass where the Cut-Rate store had once stood. A quiet mosque in place of the flower shop. What had once been a tight line of two-story houses filling the streets to the south now was a battered run of gutted lots. Even the name of the thoroughfare pouring traffic into the nearby suburbs had changed in the last thirty years—no longer Fairhill Boulevard, now Carl Stokes Boulevard.

If he couldn’t place the old neighborhood, the old neighborhood probably couldn’t place him. The last time he’d stood on this pavement, he’d been seventeen, his name had been Ronnie Bridgeman, and he was on his way to catching a murder charge.

It was now March. This was the overcast time of the year in Northeast Ohio when the days look like they’ve been rubbed over with charcoal. After a few minutes of silence, Kwame nodded north to a stoplight where another street, Cedar Avenue, crossed Stokes. “The bus will be coming from there.”

In 1975, a white man was robbed and gunned down outside the Cut-Rate store where we now stood. Kwame was arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime. His older brother, Wiley, and best friend, Rickey Jackson, were also found guilty. No physical evidence tied the three young black men to the killing. The prosecution’s only witness was a twelve-year-old neighborhood kid named Ed Vernon. The boy testified that he’d seen the three commit the homicide. On this alone, they were sentenced to death, only missing the electric chair thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Kwame was paroled in 2003. At the time we were standing together, his brother and best friend were still locked away, all due to lies.

“We weren’t guilty,” Kwame had explained to me six weeks earlier, when we first met. “My mother, who was very religious, told me, ‘Trouble is easy to get into but hard to get out of, but if you’re not guilty of anything, the truth will set you free.’ But that won’t work in politics and the law.”

This was not something Kwame had broadcast loudly since his release. He only trusted me now because he wanted help. As a reporter for a local weekly paper, I’d agreed to dig around his case. Yet as we stood on the corner, I wasn’t sure whether or not I believed him. I’d only been a journalist for three years, but I already knew belief was tricky terrain in journalism. From white-lie shading to outright prevarications, reporting, I learned early, largely involves unknotting bullshit.

There was also the drawer. Back at my desk downtown at the newspaper, my cubicle’s left bottom drawer was filled with letters. The metal space was overflowing on my first day of work, and