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.
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.
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.
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