Neighbors on Greenlawn Avenue in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood hear the “mower lady” early some summer mornings or afternoons. Twenty-year resident Bridget Daniel is a mother of two and a caretaker for numerous family members. She is known on the street for helping those in need.
Daniel’s home is surrounded by abandoned homes and vacant lots, so she’s motivated to help take care of them. When they’re not kept up, she steps in with her lawnmower and other gardening tools.
Vacant lots are a perennial problem in the city of Cleveland. They’re a breeding ground for rodents like groundhogs, a problem which is so out of control that it was recently highlighted for discussion at a Ward 9 neighborhood meeting. They’re also a safety problem; a 2016 study showed that fixing up vacant lots reduced nearby gun violence by five percent.
Each year, crews are responsible for cutting more than 16,000 land bank lots throughout the city. They also tend to more than 3,000 properties where buildings have been condemned and another 8,000 vacant properties that have been abandoned. That’s a heavy load, but the city employs workers who typically mow these properties four times per season.
Yet Bridget Daniel is not waiting. She has made it her mission to keep her street clean and safe. She says the city does not always do a good job cutting the vacant lots, so she steps in to help.
It is her love for the Glenville community that drives Daniel. “I want it to look nice where I live,” she says. “That’s how my parents raised me.”
A bad start
This year, keeping workers safe from the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with heavy rains in May, meant that cutting crews were very behind, Public Works director Michael Cox said at a recent meeting of Cleveland City Council’s Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee.
The result was that yards grew out of control.
“We had a bad start to this year,” Cox said. “We lost the first round.”
Cox, who deploys about 180 full-time workers to cut grass and handle lot maintenance and about 30 more seasonal workers who are hired for the cutting season, expect to be caught up by mid-summer.
Yet Daniel says the city could do a better job. “First of all, the city people that come out to clean, if they don’t have the right supervisor, they will skip past and won’t cut the grass right,” she says. “And they won’t edge it right and do a half job.” Daniel reached out to Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell about these problems but says she never heard back.
Conwell says the city has been behind in cleaning the vacant lots because of Covid-19 and the damage from the George Floyd protests in downtown Cleveland. “There were staffing problems and they were a month behind,” he says, adding that he spends $54,000 of his own ward allocation to clean up high grass and weeds in Glenville and encouraging residents to call him if they have problems. “I ride the ward constantly, but I cannot be everywhere.”
Keeping Greenlawn clean
Daniel remembers when the city first started tearing down houses on the street during the foreclosure crisis. The city lacked the resources to maintain them and she was worried criminals could hide in the shrubs and small trees growing there.
“I wanted the kids going to school to be safe,” she says. “I saw little girls were walking to school by themselves because sometimes mothers don’t get up with their kids. I just took it upon myself to do something. I got my handsaw and I drove down there with my water, parked my truck, and the whole neighborhood was looking at me. I remember people said, “Wow, you’re really doing a good thing.’”
It took her two days, but she cleared the property.
That’s when her neighbors began calling her “the mower lady.” Daniel battles the overgrown vegetation on Greenlawn which is a typical street in the city of Cleveland. Today, there are at least a dozen vacant lots and a half dozen abandoned homes on the street.
While the city comes out and cuts the vacant lots that sit on the east corners of the street and on the west corner which faces East 105th Street, it does not always mow the lawns of abandoned homes, says Daniel. Even when they do, the empty lots grow back quickly.
Although vacant lots are not as much of a concern in other parts of the city, they remain a big issue in Glenville.
Daniel says there has often been a lack of response from the city to overgrown vacant lots, which is why she continues to mow. “I have called Mayor Jackson’s hotline about the high grass and vegetation and even about these abandoned houses that needed to be boarded up,” she says. “They know me.”
Part of her chores
Daniel once lived in East Cleveland, then moved to Wickliffe where she graduated from high school in 1981. “I got to see how a suburban community is, how they lookout and take care of their own,” she says. “They make sure that their parks and their community are clean. Everybody helps each other out.”
She says that she started mowing grass when she was young. “Part of my house chores or if I got into trouble was to cut the grass. My sister’s backyard was like four yards.”
Daniel also picks up litter and trash to beautify the community. “That look of trash all over the place, it’s just a disgusting look,” she says. “When you see that, it doesn’t make the community look good. It doesn’t make your property look good.”
Now, when the city does not come out to mow the vacant lots and abandoned properties, the residents of Greenlawn have the “mower lady” of Greenlawn turn to.
“Bridget cuts all those lawns and she won’t let anyone give her any money,” says longtime resident Jean Coleman, one of several senior citizens who have benefited from Daniel’s services. “They should recognize her for doing all that work to make our street look good.”
Daniel refuses to take credit and says she simply takes pride in where she lives. “I do not take money from anybody because I do it for my health, to keep my body moving,” she says. “But mostly because I love where I live, and I want it to look nice for me and my family.”
Charlotte Morgan is a journalist and college professor who lives in Cleveland.