We Are A Colony: Why we give and why we trust

On July 18, The Plain Dealer ran a letter to the editor from a Cleveland Heights resident ("Cedar Lee Merchants are trying to profit off Jim Brennan’s murder") expressing shock “that the Cedar Lee Merchants Association has seen fit to turn the death of bar/restaurant owner Jim Brennan into a financial windfall (which they are calling a fundraiser) for the organization.”

I write today to clarify that every element of community organizing that has taken place in the weeks since Jim’s murder has been conducted with goodwill, love, compassion—and in collaboration with Jim’s grieving family. To underscore the degree to which these efforts are supported by the Brennan family, the “We Are A Colony” Facebook page on July 12 carried this post: “Please don't let a rumor dampen the wonderful work you are doing. It has helped lift the spirits of my sister Kathy Murphy and the rest of our family.”

With respect, specifically, to the We Are A Colony campaign, the original media coverage was clear that this T-shirt sale was started by citizens, not by any for-profit or not-for-profit organization.

Here’s how it came about:

That Monday night, hours after Jim Brennan’s murder and a door-to-door manhunt for his assailants, our community felt vulnerable, sad and under attack. Citizens flooded our merchants that night and the following days, to prove that we would not abandon this beloved business district. Nonetheless, merchants worried for their own safety, and negative comments about Cleveland Heights were rampant via online media outlets. 

Team Tuesday, a group of women who had patronized Jim Brennan’s establishment regularly on Tuesday nights, asked themselves what they could do to help. In discussing what The Colony and Jim Brennan meant to them, they designed a logo that symbolized the coming together that was felt in the radius of Brennan’s Colony. Within hours they set up an online venue where community members could buy the shirts to symbolize their sense of community. If ever a project resonated with the idea of community-commerce partnership, this would be the one.

They determined that all money raised would be donated to the Cedar Lee Special Improvement District—not exactly a traditional merchant's association. It's a tightly regulated community development alliance with a mission to promote community-commerce partnership.

Details of what the money would be used for were admittedly absent. This was an activity that grew out of emotion, and took off so quickly that the planning would have to come later. But on July 13, one of the women of Team Tuesday was quoted in one media article saying: “Beyond the money we are raising . . . which we hope will go towards a memorial for 'JB' or additional safety resources, it's our hope that these shirts can be a reminder that we are, and always will be, a colony. We will support one another through the best and worst of times. Because that's really what it means to be a part of the Heights community.”

And it worked. Momentum from the T-shirt campaign—and a separate campaign by another group of citizens to cover payroll and vendor bills during the weeks the restaurant is closed—helped change the mood in the community, among residents and businesses alike.

A violent crime in the community makes small business owners question not only their safety, but the cost-benefit calculation of staying in business. We, as Cleveland Heights citizens, want them in our community. They are part of what makes this town a colony. We buy local. We purchase houses based on walkability to a business district. We care for the owners and staff as neighbors. And, yes, we buy T-shirts to support causes, even before the details are worked out about how the money will be used.

So, neighbors, before you allege that merchants are exploiting Jim Brennan’s death by selling T-shirts, please check your facts. The merchants didn’t do anything to set the T-shirt sale in motion. The intent of the sale is not exploitative; it is community-building at its best, and it has the blessing of Jim’s family. The money will go back into the lovely tapestry of citizenship and commerce that defines our community.

In the past three weeks, our community—our colony—has shown that the threads of this tapestry are strong.

Shari Nacson

A Cleveland Heights resident and professional, Shari Nacson is also a parent and partner in the CH-UH City School District. 

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Volume 7, Issue 8, Posted 11:23 AM, 07.22.2014