Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pershing and Broadway

Cleveland's Slavic Village neighborhood is as tough as it gets. This is an old old old section of town rooted in the deepest of working class sensibility. The tiny homes sit on postage stamp lots within walking distance of the once-mighty steel mills that fueled this town's fire throughout much of the 20th century.

Everything that goes wrong in neighborhoods like Slavic Village went three-fold wrong here. White flight, shuttered factories and general urban malaise all swirled into a terrible confluence; and then the housing crisis descended.

Slavic Village was nationally recognized as "ground zero" of the foreclosure/sub-prime loan debacle, which you don't really understand until you drive around East 55th, Fleet Avenue and the adjacent grid of streets. Boarded up houses are overgrown with vines. Others are stripped of their aluminum siding. "Condemned" signs abound. Vacant lots dot the streets like so many missing teeth.

As painful as the story of this place is, you'll find a different page in the book at the intersection of Broadway and Pershing.

Here stands the Bohemian National Hall, circa 1896, and when you step inside you won't need to hear about the memories; you'll feel them.

You just know that not so many years ago all of the little houses surrounding this great old structure were immaculately tended. And on every Saturday night, the families that lived in them came here. You can hear the echoes of the adults drinking and dancing and playing cards in the ballroom while the kids romped around in the basement rooms where the teenagers were in charge.

So that era is gone. So be it. What makes my heart beat out of my chest for this place is that the Bohemian National Hall is still here and the Cleveland Czech community has preserved this place and what it stands for.

The best part? Yesterday, Eric and I went to their holiday open house and bazaar. The joint was full up with Czechs eating schnitzel and strudel, washing it down with Pilsner Urquell, and admiring all things Czech: from finery to folk dancing.

If that were the whole story, it would be poignant and sweet. But oh dear reader, it is not--and it gets even better.

Right across the street from this nearly 120-year-old historic building sits something completely different, but every bit as unique. Behold a static tornado: The Cleveland Velodrome.

Yes, the local cycling community banded together and turned tragic fallow into a spinning reality. They raised the funds and raised the track and now Cleveland is home to one of those crazy giant pasta bowls in which Lycra-clad cyclists speed around, nearly parallel to the ground.

And they built it in a neighborhood void of vegan diners, Starbucks shops and "free WiFi" signs. They built it in a city that's cloaked in snow three or four months out of the year.

They just built it.

So yeah, dear Rest of the World, this here is Slavic Village in Cleveland and it is beat-to-shit. So what?  We've got so much heart in this town, it's spilling out right here at the intersection of Broadway and Pershing by way of a bunch of stalwart old Czechs who are here because of yesterday and a bunch of funky high-speed cycling fanatics who are here because of tomorrow. Most importantly, they are all here because of today.

Oh--and if you're hungry, the Fortyniner Restaurant is open on the other side of the street.

Cleveland, I love you, I love you, I do.

*  *  *


Anonymous said...

Fleet Avenue true story:

I used to help out a friend with a concession stand down there before the Kielbasa Festival succumbed to changing demographics and some of the problems Erin mentioned.

I'm not sure why, possibly from church, I picked up a habit of using the word 'neighbor' as one would use 'buddy' or 'my friend. The stand was a couple of lots down from a neighborhood gin mill and one night as I was walking in for a cool one I said 'Excuse me, neighbor' to a fella who was blocking the door a little bit. He loked down at me (5'5" vs 6'3") and said "NEIGHBOR?! What the f*&k? What am I, in fu*&king MAYBERRY?"

So that's a little bit of what Fleet Avenue is like.

Anonymous said...

Great piece.

Great Comment. lmao.


Kirk said...

My mother grew up there. She told me the signs in the neighborhood were all in Polish when she was growing up (1940s-50s).

"Even the street signs? The traffic signs? The ones put up by the city of Cleveland?"


I found that a little hard to believe, but I'll give her the benefit of a doubt.

Last time I was there was about 15 years ago to attend a funeral for a very old uncle who had died. The service was held at St. Stanislas Church. It was being remodeled at the time, but even with scaffolding all over the place it was pretty damn impressive.

It's my mother's childhood, not mine, but it's still nice to read this.

I wonder how the southwest suburbs of my youth (and now middle-age) will be described in the future?

"Here on Day Drive in Parma once stood a mighty mall which you could get to in a straight shot from North Royalton by going down Ridge..."

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks for all the nice comments. I loved writing this.

Anonymous said...

OFF TOPIC-sorry, nobody's home to talk to.

"Life's good-but not fair at all..."

Lou Reed, 1942-2013. RIP

Anonymous said...

"Despite all the amputation
you could dance to a rock 'n' roll station,
and it was all right."



Big Mark 243 said...

I love you EO'B... you stick up for your city like no one else does for theirs... well, maybe you along with Drew Carey... you guys make great ambassodors for the city on shores of Lake Erie..!

Mrs. C said...

And I love-love-LOVE the yesterday-tomorrow-today construct--fills my heart.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing such a great "blog piece" about our neighborhood. I "transplanted" to the Broadway/Slavic Village Neighborhood 22 years ago and live on East 55th (I can see both the Velodrome and the Bohemian National Hall from my back porch). There have been changes here, but the heart and soul of this neighborhood beats strong. Thanks goes to the residents, community leaders, City Council, and organizations like Slavic Village/Broadway Development for their strong committment to the Broadway/Slavic Village Neighborhood. Positive changes have been in the works... Of note, just down the street from the Forty-Niner restaurant (next to the fire dept) is a new Broadway Arch project which will extend across Broadway Ave and welcome visitors to our neighborhood; the Morgana Run Trail links us to the Cleveland MetroParks and the city. Events like Feet on Fleet, the Broadway Farmers Market, Street Repair Music Festival, the Game of SKATE, and the Czech Holiday Fair help us grow and stay connected as a community and those who come to participate are engaged by the neighborhood spirit. There are new housing projects that are helping to sustain and build our future - Trailside Homes (E. 71st and Aetna Rd)- and businesses/locations like Seven Roses Deli (Fleet Ave), Slovenian National Home/The Nash (E. 80th, Polish American cultural Center (E.65th and Lansing), Bohemian National Hall (Broadway Ave), Red Chimney (E. 65th), Cleveland Central Catholic High School, and Third Federal Savings and Loan which anchor the neighborhood. We have new residents who are moving in and are excited to join our community - recent residents include Senator Sherrod Brown and his wife, Columnist Connie Schultz (Pulitzer Prize winner)who re-located to Millcreek. I am proud to be a resident here, and prouder of the people who make this place "my" neighborhood. Thank you.

Erin O'Brien said...

Anon, how wonderful for you to visit and comment. Things sound like they are on the upswing in Slavic Village. You can bet I'll be having lunch at Seven Roses sooner rather than later.

Thanks you so much for reading and commenting. It means a lot to me.

Jen said...

thank you for writing about my family history!

Anonymous said...

Another fond Kielbasa Festival memory: Because of its proximity to the start of heavy-duty political campaigning season the festival was a must-attend for city and county politicos. I don't think I've ever seen anything so funny in a political context as the vegan Dennis Kucinich trying to wend his way through the feast shaking hands and slapping backs without getting any meat on him. The air was so thick with pork and pork products that it had an almost aerosol quality to it.


philbilly said...

In the summer of '88, I started my first shop in a rickety garage between Aetna and Union, part of a very old industrial complex of machine shops and manufacturing plants. All of those buildings and the surrounding houses are now long gone. It was hot as hell all summer. I ate breakfast at the Red Chimney, still there, still rocks.

My girlfriend wanted to go out someplace high-falutin' one night, and I told her she would need to help at the shop for a minute, so I could leave early and degrease.
She came straight from her corporate job, wearing high heels and a miniskirt, and wearing them well. As I prepped the calipers on an old 450SL, she moved from fender to fender as I worked, crossing and uncrossing her legs. When the brakes were ready to bleed, she wriggled down into the warm blue leather seat, and I crouched by the running board, eye to thigh, hand on her foot, to explain how to pump the pedal. All the way down and all the way up, real slow and real easy then hold it down, don't let up no matter what, and follow the pedal down to the floor as I crack each bleeder to expel the air. Let me know when it starts getting hard and high.

Best foreplay in the history of the world.

I still love Slavic Village.