CLEVELAND (AP) — Rows of red and white grapes climb trellises surrounded by a crumbling brick building, an empty corner store and graffiti-covered apartments.
The man who planted the vineyard says his plan for the lot once occupied by a crack house goes far beyond bottling wine.
Mansfield Frazier wants to show there’s still hope for the neighborhood and for those trying to move away from a life of crime, just like he did years ago.
Too often, neither one is given much of chance — at least not on the city’s east side where the collapse of the manufacturing economy, poverty and racial inequality came together, leaving behind some of the nation’s bleakest areas.
Home to oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and other wealthy industrialists during the early 1900s, the mansions along “Millionaire’s Row” have given way to desolate neighborhoods where every fifth house is vacant, over half the children live in poverty and crime is a constant worry.
“There’s a pipeline from cradle to prison in too many homes in our community,” said Frazier, 73, a former hustler whose dealings with stolen and counterfeit credit cards kept him in and out of prison until two decades ago.
An urban vineyard is the last thing anyone expects to find in the middle of Hough (rhymes with tough), a neighborhood still saddled by the memory of six days of looting and violence that left four dead 50 years ago this summer.
The idea of growing grapes started out six years ago, Frazier said, as a way to spruce up the weed-infested corner across from his home and take a stand for the community. So was building a new house in the neighborhood in 2000.
“It’s up to us to solve the problem,” he said. “We wanted to live where the problem was. That’s why other middle class blacks are moving to Hough. You shouldn’t have to move to improve your neighborhood.”
Hough has seen a smattering of new homes go up during the past 15 years. It’s not unusual to see a newly built house with a manicured lawn next to an empty lot and a boarded-up building.
Using a grant from the city, Frazier created the vineyard on the lot that covers less than an acre with help from ex-cons who were living in a nearby halfway house. They start out as volunteers and then he hires them afterward, if they are willing to work. They cut vines, prune, weed and learn to show up on time.
“That’s part of our training, making them dependable. It’s a challenge,” Frazier said.
Frazier has gotten a few small grants over the years, along with fundraisers and donations from the community to help pay for the hired help. But mostly, he and his wife have put their own money into the venture.
About 50 have come through so far, with a little less than half going on to find new jobs.
“They’re truck drivers, some are working construction, some in restaurants,” he said. “The others, we don’t know where they’re at. Some are in incarceration. We get some guys who screw up, who like prison.”
Joe McCulsky credits Frazier for giving him a chance when no one else would when he got out of prison three years ago after serving time on a drug charge. Frazier even gave him a loan so he could afford his first month’s rent.
“A lot of people look at you like ‘you’re a convicted felon, we don’t want anything to do with you,'” said McCulsky, who worked at the vineyard for eight months and now has a job at a tree service.
“If you want to change, he’ll give you a chance,” he said. “Wish there were more like him.”
Marvin Foster Jr. has been with Frazier since the vineyard’s first year. Before that, he said he was “a bad guy doing nothing” — stealing televisions, ripping metal siding off homes and dealing drugs.
“Without this, I’d probably be in prison like my brother,” he said. “Everybody knows Hough from the riots. That’s a negative, this is a positive.”
But Foster, 26, knows the vineyard can’t save everyone. His cousin lasted just two weeks and has been in and out of jail.
“We tried with him,” Frazier said, his voice trailing off.
The vines will be fully mature next year, capable of producing 3,000 bottles. Frazier still needs a license to sell the wine, but he has made several bottles over the past few years.
Each has a label with a map of the neighborhood and says “The Vineyards of Chateau Hough.”
“It’s really a re-entry program that’s parading as a vineyard,” he said. “We become their family, but mentoring doesn’t work without a paycheck.”