Welcome to Collinwood: Signs of life springing forth on East 185th Street

For many Clevelanders, memories of bygone E. 185th St. conjure up visions of its epic annual street festival, movies at the La Salle, and bike rides down to the lake.

Debra Drobnick is no exception. Born and raised in Euclid, Drobnick has fond recollections of growing up just one street away from E. 185th St., so it’s rather poetic that she’s now part of the street’s renaissance as one of the forces behind uber-popular Irie Jamaican Kitchen.

“We have people coming from the far West side, Medina, and Ashtabula to try the food, so [the restaurant] has become somewhat of a destination in itself,” says Drobnick. “For me, having a business here is definitely like coming home.”

McKay and DrobnickAs Irie Jamaican Kitchen celebrates its two-year anniversary this Sunday, February 10, Drobnick and chef-owner Omar McKay are preparing to open a new retail shop one block away in just a few weeks. Located in the former Old World Meats space, Irie Village will be a “Caribbean bodega” and butcher shop, as well as a central kitchen for both restaurants once the forthcoming Old Brooklyn location is up and running.

“We want to bring back that neighborhood butcher shop feel,” says Drobnick. “We’ll be selling take-home items like rotisserie jerk chicken, as well as Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, spices, and our own bottled sauces from the restaurant.”

Irie Jamaican Kitchen is one of a number of businesses that has popped up on the street since 2017, along with Full Spectrum: GamerHaven, and more recently, Moore Pet Supply (which will have a ribbon-cutting ceremony this Friday), Humphrey Popcorn, and the newly christened La Salle Arts & Media Center.

It’s a welcome development for the once-thriving, now largely vacant business district on E. 185th St. (In 2016, vacancies in the corridor were estimated at 30 percent, according to the Transportation for Livable Communities Initiative that was adopted that year by Euclid City Council.)

“There is a concerted effort to bring new businesses onto the street, as well as support existing businesses there,” says Jamar Doyle, executive director of Greater Collinwood Development Corporation. “We’re also marketing vacant spaces that we’re trying to infill.”

For Humphrey Popcorn co-owner Sue Prokop, there was little question about where to base their new retail shop—which relies heavily on the nostalgia invoked by nearby Euclid Beach Park. The company has been around since 1893, when Dudley Sherman Humphrey I opened his first popcorn stand in Public Square in front of the old May Company building. In 1901, the Humphrey family took over management of Euclid Beach Park, and a beloved tradition was born—along with an enduring Cleveland craving.

“When you started to see those Euclid Beach arches, you knew your day was going to be perfect,” says Prokop, who grew up in Willoughby and used to drive up E. 185th St. to visit Euclid Beach as a child. “The popcorn continues to recreate that memory. People always have a story [associated with it].”

When Prokop and her husband Mike—along with relative Joanne Lynch—purchased Humphrey Popcorn in 2011, they moved the manufacturing operations from Warrensville Heights to Strongsville, but the tried-and-true recipe stayed intact. “The method of popping goes back three generations,” says Prokop.

A new generation will now be discovering the popcorn with the opening of the E. 185th St. retail shop, which opened in late January. Among the store’s offerings are four flavors of Humphrey popcorn balls, along with taffy, Bakers chocolate whips, and locally made products like OhFuudge sweets and Cleveland Jam wine jellies.

“It’s neat to see the street coming back and rejuvenating, and we felt that it was a place people would appreciate coming because of the memories they have,” says Prokop. “We’re bringing that historical piece back and helping bridge the gap into the new.”

The interior of the renovated La Salle Arts & Media Center
Also creating a bridge from past to present is the La Salle Arts & Media Center, which broke ground in August 2016 and is now ready for primetime. After years of renovation, the former movie theatre is now a special event space, and also offers two retail storefronts (occupied by Humphrey Popcorn Shop and 4 Corners Custom Framing). Bike Cleveland held its annual summit there in November, and Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School will host its annual “Continue the Dream” gala there on Saturday, February 23.

“The redevelopment of La Salle connects to Collinwood history and sends a very strong message in terms of the rebirth of the street,” says Doyle of Greater Collinwood Development Corporation. “It had been vacant for a very long time, and now that you see the marquee lit up and events happening there, people can feel a new energy and that things are beginning to happen again. We’re not only preserving the history, but moving it forward in a way that propels the neighborhood and the street into a brighter future.”

Full Spectrum: GamerHaven owner Robert Gatewood has had a prime vantage point for both the street’s past and future, having lived in Collinwood since 1999, graduated from Collinwood High School, and served various roles for the area's community development corporations. He opened the business—a shared workspace and networking hub for small business owners, graphic designers, and game designers—on E. 185th St. in November 2017 and hasn’t looked back.

Full Spectrum: Gamerhaven“My goal was always to get on E. 185th St. and be part of the change I saw coming,” says Gatewood, who estimates it’s about a 10-minute walk from his home to his business. “With the amazing arts community that already exists in the Waterloo Arts District [in Collinwood], 185 has the chance to be a hub for technology-based and innovative arts. This can be a neighborhood centered around creativity if those two elements fuse.”

Gatewood believes the positive economic momentum will continue to accelerate due to the street's numerous selling points, which include walkability and proximity to important resources like the lake and the freeway. “The street is a major thoroughfare, there are two hospitals nearby, and it’s close to the freeway—just those assets alone make any commercial property more viable,” says Gatewood. “Plus, it has that Main Street feel.”

According to Doyle, a new streetscape is also imminent as part of the implementation of the TLCI plan. (Read it here.) He sees that as a vital piece of the puzzle that is coming together to form a new picture of E. 185th St., along with the efforts to enhance and encourage retail businesses.

“We’re transforming the vibe of the street—by enhancing the experience of the corridor, that’s what will make a big difference,” says Doyle. “We’re going through a renaissance to ensure E. 185th St. remains an important anchor on the eastern edge of Cleveland for a long time to come.”

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As a Cleveland native and enthusiast, Jen Jones Donatelli is thrilled to take on the managing editor role at FreshWater. As a full-time freelance writer and editor for more than a decade, Jen has contributed to publications including Redbook, Budget Travel, GOOD, Playboy, Thrillist, Cleveland Magazine, Los Angeles Confidential, San Francisco, Ohio Today, and many more. She is also a contributing editor for Destination Cleveland and a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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