A resident at a recent Ward 4 meeting in Cleveland said it’s hard to get grants in the neighborhood. To which interim councilwoman Marion Anita Gardner retorted, “Did I not just say that? Everyone boo this guy!”
Many of the several dozen residents cramming the room at Mount Pleasant Now Development Corporation complied. Then Gardner laughed. “I’m just messing with you,” she told the booed man, before messing with him a little longer.
Besides being a seven-month fill-in for a convicted councilman, Gardner is a retired machinist, community center founder and leader, former Cleveland Housing Court volunteer, survivor of 15 brain surgeries, and bold activist. Grinning and glaring, praising and panning, she always speaks her mind.
“If you’re full of shit, I’ll tell you,” she told the Ward 4 crowd. “And, if you think I’m full of shit, you tell me too.
“I get kicked at City Council all the time. ‘You can’t say that!’ Yes I can.”
Gardner’s never formal. She often says, “Guess what?” or “You know what I’m saying?” or “Omigod!” And don’t call her “councilwoman.” She prefers Anita, Momma ‘Nita, or “moonpuppy,” which she writes all lower case.
In January, when her council stint ends, Gardner vows to continue her civic efforts, especially her Concerned Citizens Community Council. That group offers a summer camp, a wood and machine shop, and a community greenhouse, with two more expected soon. It also gives away food, coats, even tampons.
“I don’t want…women to go to jail for selling food stamps for what they need every month,” Gardner said.
City Hall recently started dispensing tampons in the women’s rooms. “You just figured that out?” Gardner proclaimed to her crowd. “I thought of that all by myself. Gee, what a genius I am!”
Gardner tries to help all kinds. “I got a prostitute who changes her clothes every day next to my center,” she said. “She comes over and asks for wet wipes. I give them to her.”
For Gardner’s brief stint on council, she hired an executive assistant, Rich Greene, who moonlights as a stand-up comic. She sees plenty of material for satire at City Hall.
“Everyone who is in power has their own agenda,” said Gardner, alluding to council. “They’re making decisions without talking to people in the ward.
“I did not realize it takes so long to do any damn thing. We need faster care. Some people’s lives depend on 30 days. If we’re waiting on the City of Cleveland, we’re in a little bit of trouble.”
How would she speed things up? By cutting the chatter short. “They got to talk about every little damn thing,” she said.
She’d also pass smaller bills faster. “Everyone agreed we need new ambulances,” Gardner said. “We could have separated that and voted on ambulances right away. But it was part of a larger bill.”
She’s appalled by council’s quarrels. “I thought it was just Blacks and whites, but it’s everybody,” Gardner said. “They don’t cooperate with each other.”
She thinks, for instance, that poorer wards should get more help, including bigger shares of pandemic aid. She also is leery of redevelopment, including work in the Woodhill Homes neighborhood, which straddles her ward.
“The term is ‘affordable housing.’ That’s a really catchy phrase. They have not committed to a number. Affordable for who? The children of the rich? College students?” (She knows what the phrase officially means, but says that it’s often misused.)
Ward 4 serves historic Shaker Square, which the city and community groups are trying to save from foreclosure. She thinks those groups should talk more with the residents about the future of this diverse, historic hub.
“It is the diamond in the crown,” said Gardner. “It brings unity to the community.”
She sides with many locals against a proposal to close parts of the Square to traffic. Ward 4 also includes parts of Buckeye, Mount Pleasant, Woodland Hills and Kinsman.
“This is a cracked community,” Gardner said. “I’m not talking about drugs. It’s where everything comes that falls through the cracks. The groundhogs are running the skunks out. We have vultures, buzzards, everywhere. We got daily shootings, daily robbers. All enforcement is lax.”
Gardner was born in Mississippi 69 years ago with a brain defect now called a Chiari malformation. She came to Cleveland as an infant, graduated from Jane Addams High School, attended Dyke College, and moved to Mount Pleasant in the mid-1970s.
She became a neighborhood watchdog, reporting downed light poles, decrepit buildings, and other problems. She volunteered enforcing housing codes and helping Cleveland Housing Court defendants. She served as treasurer of a local nonprofit that became the statewide Empowering and Strengthening Ohio’s People. She also made and exhibited mobiles, quilts and other creations.
For nearly 32 years, Gardner worked as a machinist and supervisor in the valve division at TRW, an auto parts manufacturer. She says she chose that trade because she was too plainly groomed and too outspoken for office work.
The brain defect gradually led her to headaches, vertigo, broken teeth, those brain surgeries, and retirement. But she says she’s more than healthy enough to keep helping the neighborhood.
Gardner started the Concerned Citizens in the late 2000s. The group occupies a small house on a blacktop on Kinsman Avenue and also uses some vacant space across the street.
The Citizens spend about $62,000 per year. Funds come from the St. Luke’s Foundation and individual donors. The group has two part-time employees. Gardner and many others volunteer there.
Before the pandemic, the Citizens offered sewing, cooking and academic classes. Gardner hopes to resume those classes soon.
A frustrating job
In Ward 4, she was one of 18 applicants this spring to fill in for 41-year incumbent Kenneth Johnson, then under suspension. She says she got his permission first and respects his years of work for the ward.
“There were 10 sides of this man,” Gardner said. “He’d hire all the kids and guys from prison. He let everybody in the neighborhood wash their clothes at the recreation center.
“If you had a problem with a drug dealer or somebody doing something stupid, Ken would come over and try to talk to the people. He just got complacent.”
Johnson did not return a call for comment.
Gardner was chosen on June 3 by Cuyahoga County Presiding Probate Judge Anthony Russo. In a press release, Russo said that he preferred applicants like Gardner who’d pledged not to run for a full term. He also said Gardner stood out during the interview process for her advocacy and dedication to the residents of Ward 4.
In July, Johnson was convicted on 15 federal counts of bilking taxpayers and expelled from council. That ended Gardner’s probate appointment, but council reappointed her through Dec. 31, the term’s normal end. In 2022, election winner Deborah Gray will start a new four-year term.
Despite Gardner’s frustrations with City Hall, she said she managed to help the ward. “We answered every call.” She got water and electricity restored in an apartment building whose owner was behind on the bills. She started a program that to date has helped some 200 senior citizens get to discount shopping stores. She helped to arrange COVID vaccinations.
In hindsight, though, she regrets taking the frustrating job. “It was a life lesson, I have to give you that.”
“She’s the streets”
Leaders praise her efforts. “She is direct and to the point, and she cares about the community,” said Joy Johnson, executive director for Burten, Bell, Carr Development, Inc.
“She has made a huge impact in her relatively short time in office. I am excited to see how she brings her council experience back into her activist work.”
“She’s a champion,” added Brandon Chrostowski, founder of the Square’s ever-growing Edwins Restaurant and Leadership Institute. “She’s the streets. She represents the people and stands up for the people.”
The crowd at the ward meeting praised Gardner, too. “She was awesome and straight to the point,” said Annaliesa Henley. As for the councilwoman’s off-color words, “We are all adults,” she said.
Larry Freeman told Gardner that she reminded him of the late Fannie Lewis, a fiery councilwoman from Hough. Gardner said that Lewis always hugged him. So Gardner hugged him too.
At the meeting’s end, Gardner told the crowd, “Even after I leave office, I’m not going anywhere. Whatever I can do to help, I promise.” The audience applauded. “Wait a minute. I ain’t through yet!”
She held up a small black box.
“You know we clean the neighborhood every six months. This year, we found a box of cremated remains. This guy’s name is Gerald Carlton. The funeral home said he was murdered. He was wrapped in plastic bags and put in a rose bush. The only person that claimed his remains was his mother, and we can’t find her. If anybody knows of him or his family members, please, he’s available for pickup.”
Gardner’s ward office can be reached at 216-664-4941 or, through December, at [email protected]. The Concerned Citizens Community Council can be reached at 13611 Kinsman Ave., [email protected] The Council will give clothes and footwear to people in need from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11, at the Masonic Hall, 13512 Kinsman.
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