As The Suburbs Crept Out, He Dug In

MAYFIELD HEIGHTS, OH—Even though Joseph Tomaro is the last, defiant holdout in a rural neighborhood gone urban, he enjoys the serendipitous camaraderie that commercialism brings his way. He knows the names of the office workers who walk by his house and swaps news with the merchants down the street.

He is even friendly with the construction workers building the final insult: a four-level parking garage, looming just 10 feet south of his house and garden.

“At first, those fellows thought I wanted to make trouble for them,” said Mr. Tomaro, 83, a retired machinist and union leader who has lived in this Cleveland suburb since 1950. “But I went over on their lunch break and told them, ‘Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for the working man.’ Now we talk all the time.”

Mr. Tomaro saves his ire for the city officials who allowed Meridia Hillcrest Hospital to build its new garage so close to both his property and the street. The hospital has been trying to buy his property for the last 30 years. After he declined yet another offer this year, Hillcrest began extending its parking around his property, which is 50 feet by 190 feet. The new garage will intersect another garage and valet parking lot, which lie 30 feet east of his back yard.

A veteran of several planning and zoning disputes, Mr. Tomaro has attended nearly every city meeting since he moved to Mayfield Heights, which has a population of almost 20,000. “Sometimes I’m the only citizen there,” he said. “They ask me, ‘Don’t you have anything to do?’ I tell them I got plenty to do, but I still want to know how you guys are running my city.”

Mayor Margaret Egensperger disputes Mr. Tomaro’s accusations that the city made any concessions to the hospital, saying that the new garage met all existing code. But she is unwilling to criticize his recalcitrance in the face of growing pains by one of the city’s biggest employers. “This is democracy at its finest,” she said. “He’s held out, and I would go to war to defend his right to do so. He loves his place and doesn’t care how much money they offer him.”

Charles Miner, Meridia Health System’s chief executive, has visited Mr. Tomaro a few times at his home, sitting at the kitchen table to talk about the impasse. “We still want the property, but we’re fine with him staying where he is,” Mr. Miner said. “We try to be the best neighbor we can. It’s just that it’s not a residential neighborhood anymore.”

In fact, Mr. Tomaro’s two-bedroom brick bungalow is near one of the busiest intersections in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs. He chose to build there in 1949 because it was the terminus for city water and sewage; his wife, who died in 1982, put down her foot at the idea of moving any farther out of the city. Now, his beloved country lane is a fast lane, with two bustling shopping centers nearby and commuters clotting the roads. He wakes to the sound of car alarms and horns reverberating through the hospital’s cavernous garage.

Still, he has no plans to leave. “I’d go crazy in an apartment,” he said, his blue eyes shaded green by the reflected light of his garden and Seabee cap. “I’m not a senior citizen yet. I’m too pressed for time.”

For 48 years, Mr. Tomaro has been working a large plot in his back yard, turning clay and stones into soil he can spade as easily as one scoops coffee. He has already finished one round of rototilling this fall and sown his crop of winter rye. Inside his refrigerator are jars of the seeds he preserves from year to year, including the basil his father brought from Italy in 1914; the Sicilian blackjack zucchini, which grows as large as a sturdy young leg; and the Brooklyn Bomber tomato, one of which weighed 3 ¾ pounds last year.

Every summer, Mr. Tomaro puts up a table on his front lawn and sells his produce, more for the company than the profits. He gets a lot of dawdlers from the area’s many buildings for the elderly, who miss their own gardens and like the opportunity of poking around his.

But they cannot call ahead to find out whether their favorite vegetable is ready for picking. Mr. Tomaro has had an unlisted number ever since his wife received obscene phone calls during a strike he led in the 1940s. Now, others with his surname pull up in his yard to complain about late-night callers who try to find him by calling every Tomaro in the phone book.

“They tell me, ‘Get listed, Joe—I get people calling me all hours of the night and day asking about tomatoes.’” Mr. Tomaro grins and fingers the collar of his shirt. “Now why would I want to put up with that?”

Reprinted with permission from The New York Times