teach your children: urban pioneers are rewriting the story of suburban flight

Published in Fresh Water Cleveland, 2/10/11

For years, the common trend in Ohio City was for young couples to buy homes, live there for a few years, and then flee to the suburbs when they had kids. But thanks to pioneering couples like David and Jen Hovis, who renovated a fire-damaged Victorian on West 32nd Street into a model green home, that story may be changing.

A year ago, the Hovis’s decision to stay in the neighborhood was anything but certain. They debated pulling up stakes and moving to the ‘burbs, where better schools, bigger yards and family-friendly streets beckoned. What convinced them to do otherwise was a close-knit group of neighborhood friends and the promise of a new school.

“We thought about leaving a few times, but we’re grounded here,” says Jen Hovis, a member of the Ohio City Babysitting Co-op, a sit-swapping group that meets regularly. “There’s a social network for everyone here, old and young.”

The Hovis story is notable not only because the couple ultimately decided to stay and raise kids in a neighborhood still considered by some as a gamble. But also because they are leading the charge to create a new, high-quality school in their community.

“Education is extremely important to us,” says Jen. “We could afford a private school, but we’d prefer to see the barrier to a great education lowered for everyone.”

Long frustrated by the lack of high-quality public school options, Ohio City parents for years have been presented with a narrow set of options: move to a better district, rely on open enrollment to secure a spot at a better public school, or send their kids to private school. Urban Community School, a private Catholic school with a new Ohio City campus on Lorain Avenue, is the de facto choice for parents who can get in — and pay the tuition.

Last year, several factors converged to make the formation of a new city school a strong possibility. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District released its bold Transformation Plan; the school district embraced a newfound willingness to work with top-performing charter schools; and a large number of parents like the Hovises had children who were on the cusp of starting elementary school.

Thanks to the efforts of those parents, the dream of a new school is nearing fruition. The Intergenerational School, a high-ranking, K-8 charter school near Shaker Square, has plans to create a new public charter school. In order for the Near West Intergenerational School to open this fall as planned it must first secure a location and sign up enough families to meet its enrollment goals.

When David and Jen Hovis moved to Cleveland’s near west side in 2003, they weren’t sure if they would stay. David, a research engineer at Case Western Reserve University, first met Jen, a physician from Northwest Indiana, when they were both living in Chicago. After her fellowship, both got jobs in Cleveland.

Fans of Chicago’s dynamic urban neighborhoods, they naturally looked for similar locales in Cleveland. They landed on a home in the EcoVillage, a pilot green community near West 54th and Lorain Avenue in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

At first, David and Jen loved the house. Six years later, with two sons and grandparents who visit often, the three-bedroom house began to feel a little small.

“It didn’t work,” recounts Jen with a grimace. “We’d put the boys in the same room, which meant they didn’t sleep. If someone woke up, then everyone was up.”

The Hovises began looking for a larger home. They confined their search to the near-west side — walkable, diverse neighborhoods that are close to friends and neighborhood amenities like the West Side Market. They dreamed of finding the perfect fixer-upper — a blank canvas where they could design a green, family-friendly home.

“We were more interested in insulation than we were in countertops,” says David.

Last spring, the Hovises bought a three-family Victorian on West 32nd across from Fairview Park, a popular playground. The home, built in the 1880s, had been vacant for months. One year earlier, a tragic fire swept through the boarding house next door, killing four people. The Victorian had been damaged, but it was salvageable.

The Hovises hired a contractor and spent six months lovingly restoring the home’s exterior, while also redesigning the interior. The result is a 4,000-square-foot single-family home with five bedrooms, roomy enough for their kids and both sets of grandparents. The third-floor playroom has become a hotspot for babysitting co-op play dates.

Contractor Matt Berges and architect Jim Ptacek of Larsen Architects helped design the re-envisioned home. Green-building features include new house siding, high-efficiency insulation, extra-thick walls, energy-saving windows, Energy Star appliances, and high-efficiency hot water tank and furnace. The fully rehabbed home is now five times more efficient than it was when the Hovises purchased it. The couple estimates they’ll save $6,000 in annual utility costs.

Throughout the renovation, which was partially financed with low-interest loans from the Cleveland Restoration Society and Cleveland Action to Support Housing, many of the home’s original features were saved, including pine-flooring and the front hall’s elegant spindled staircase. The Hovises also utilized reclaimed materials such as doors from a Slavic Village convent, a chandelier from Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, and lumber salvaged during demo.

To memorialize the victims of the fire, Jen is preparing to plant a small garden in the empty lot next door.

Although the Hovises have settled into their new home, they haven’t stopped thinking of ways to improve their neighborhood around them. In addition to marketing Near West Intergenerational School to other parents, they are discussing other ways to keep middle-class parents from leaving the community when they have kids. Next up, a neighborhood pre-school.

For more information about the Near West Intergenerational School or to enroll a student, please visit this website.

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