Raymond L. Pianka, judge of Cleveland’s Housing Court, died suddenly at the age of 65 early Sunday morning, January 22. As the city’s housing court judge for over two decades, Ray became something close to a legend among people engaged in fighting neighborhood decline and abandoned properties, not just in Cleveland but across the United States.
Ray took on predatory lenders, irresponsible property owners, even city officials if he felt they were not doing right by the city he loved and its people. For Ray, the administration of justice was not an end in itself, but a means toward making conditions better for Cleveland’s people.
Under his leadership, Cleveland’s Housing Court became a remarkable institution, where the goal was not to punish people, but to resolve issues, and foster greater compliance with the city’s housing codes and ordinances, a model for others around the country. To get a sense of the many different ways in which he pursued that goal, as well as get a lot of good ideas to apply in one’s own community, anyone concerned with problem properties should read the description of the Housing Court’s initiatives on its website.
Part of the reason Ray was such a good judge was that he was also a warm, caring person, who retained his ability to get angry at injustice yet could also be a delightful dinner companion, always open to the unexpected. I remember him telling me with delight how on a lark, he’d had his DNA tested, and learned that he had what’s known as the ‘priestly’ marker, a marker strongly associated with descendants of the ancient Jewish priestly tribe, the Cohanim. He then remembered his grandmother telling him that in their ancestral village in Poland there was a street of Catholic Piankas, and a few blocks away, another street full of Jewish Piankas. Ray was a proud Polish Catholic, but it tickled him to think that deep down inside he might actually have Jewish forebears.
For Ray Pianka, Housing Court was as much a calling as a job. His life and work will stand as a model of public service for anyone who cares about the well-being and future of their community. We will miss him, but we will remember all that he did.