Kidnap suspects’ neighborhood has seen more prosperous days

USA TODAY, May 9, 2013

By Yamiche Alcindor

CLEVELAND — Seymour Avenue, now the infamous location of a decades-long house of horrors, had usually been considered a quiet place where neighbors look out for one another, hold block barbecues and nurse a tight-knit community.

Ariel Castro — the suspect police allege to have held captive Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight — fit in with the crowd. A bus driver and local bass player, he was like many of the working-class residents and enjoyed the respect that came with a well-known family name.

“He was a member of this community and I loved him,” said Maria Castro-Montes, Ariel Castro’s cousin, one of the dozens of family members living and working in the neighborhood. “We are just stunned and shocked that anyone in our family had anything to do with this.”

The modest white home where Berry, DeJesus and Knight were held is much like the others that line the cracked concrete road. Seymour Avenues is a place where people have fun, exchange small talk but mind their own business, residents said.

Julio Castro, Ariel Castro’s uncle, came to the United States from Puerto Rico in the 1950s. Back then, the neighborhood was filled with children playing, and each house was home to people trying to make an honest living, he said.

Julio Castro was one of them. He opened Caribe Grocery on Seymour Avenue, across the street from Ariel Castro’s home. Ariel Castro’s father was also an entrepreneur, running a nearby car dealership for years.

With their thriving businesses, the Castro family became known around the neighborhood, Julio Castro said.

Julio Castro bought nephew Ariel Castro his first guitar and encouraged him to be a musician over the years.

“He was a musician and a school bus driver — that told you he loved children,” he said. “We didn’t know he had two personalities.”

Census records show the area is about a quarter Hispanic, which is almost twice the city’s rate, and that Puerto Ricans make up the majority of that population.

Residents started leaving some years ago, but some families remain. Homes were abandoned, and businesses closed, Julio Castro said. Part of the exodus came from people making better money and moving into the suburbs as well as big businesses coming in. Currently, almost a third of the workers are in manufacturing, Census records show.

“This was a great neighborhood,” Julio Castro said. “No doubt, it has changed.”

Those changes may have helped create an environment where Ariel Castro could hide the women, said Cecil King, 43, who grew up coming to the Seymour Avenue area as a youngster.

A mix of apartment buildings, homes and businesses fill the streets surrounding Seymour Avenue. Family restaurants dot busy roads filled with fast food restaurants. A long list of businesses–car repair shops, check cashing stores and beauty supply stores–make up shopping centers where people causally stroll.

Chipped paint covers many of the homes’ porches. Large trees and overgrown shrubs fill the backyards. Sidewalks have larges cracks, and cars navigate around large potholes.

The median income of residents around Seymour Avenue is half that of Cleveland’s median, according to Census. Half of the households earn less than $10,000 a year and almost half the households get food stamps, almost twice the city rate.

“It’s an impoverished neighborhood, and people are forgotten here,” King said. “It’s easy to conceal things because there’s a lack of visibility.”

Even so, King and others say Seymour Avenue is not just a neighborhood, it’s a community.

“We all have everyone’s backs,” said Rick Shear, a retired tow truck driver. “We watch people’s houses and vehicles. We cook out and have barbecues.”

Shear even went to backyard barbecues at Ariel Castro’s home, never entered Castro’s home. Shear says he thought it was a bit suspicious that Ariel Castro kept his blinds constantly, shut but it wasn’t that unusual for people to want their privacy. Many residents along Seymour Avenue keep to themselves, he said.

Ellie Johnson, 81, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1992, agrees. He remembers a time when children played outside and firework shows lighted the skies. That stopped several years ago, he says, as families grew older and people became more isolated.

“It’s a bit rough, but I love it here,” said Johnson, a retired truck driver. “People treat me nice and others don’t bother me.”

Contributing: Paul Overberg