Picture it: 1953. The front end of a restaurant. Nighttime.
A group of 30 nattily-dressed men finish their monthly meeting of the Exchange Club, an organization for businessmen modeled after a similar group founded in Detroit decades earlier. After debating the latest ideas to increase civic and educational advancement, the meeting’s papers get pushed aside and out come the decks of cards.
Standing in the corner is a 13-year-old boy, the son of the restaurant owner. He was admonished by his father not to get in the men’s way, to give them space—but the boy can’t help himself. He pretends like he is refilling their water glasses or clearing away dishes. But he really approaches their tables to listen, to marvel at their stories, to take their unsolicited advice on how to lead the happiest life possible. The boy feels joy beyond description to be in this space in this time. He feels like he is in a movie.
But this isn’t a Frank Capra flick. Or a Cleveland knock-off of "Leave it to Beaver." The scene is just another day on Pearl Road, the well-worn corridor that has become known throughout Cleveland first for its community feel, then for its auto-congested transformation, and now by its monumental efforts towards revitalization.
Michael Loizos “Pearl Road has changed so much over the years, but the dynamic of people looking out for their neighbors has always remained the same,” says Michael Loizos.
Loizos would know. 65 years ago, he was that 13-year-old boy, and the eatery was the famed Glenn Restaurant, often called “the First Business of Old Brooklyn.” Located on the corner of Memphis and Pearl, the space first opened in 1926 and then purchased by Loizos’ father and uncle in 1946. In 1973, Loizos took over the space, running it until its close on Memorial Day 1999.
Over the years, Loizos has seen it all in all in Old Brooklyn: celebrations in the streets as sons and daughters returned from World War II, the dramatically altered racial demographics as busing became a controversial reality in Cleveland, and storefronts that have come and gone. Through it all, the sense of community has been the narrative thread connecting the generations.
“I can never quite describe it, but I have always felt like people care deeply about each other here on Pearl Road,” says Loizos. “The street itself or businesses may change, but that feeling of caring never seems to go away.”
Jack Frost Donuts is one of many family-run businesses that has been on Pearl Road for decades (in Jack Frost's case, since 1937).To understand the significance of Pearl Road is to recognize its place within the landscape not only of Old Brooklyn, but of Cleveland itself. The area began as a settlement outpost in the 19th century, and morphed in the 20th century into a locale focused on connecting residents to the mills and other industry throughout the city. The human-scale of the buildings was a direct result of the focus on the people living in the area. Throughout the years, it was Pearl Road itself that became the point of connection—quickly becoming a living manifestation of the bustling lives of the business owners and residents who regularly traveled the street.
“Pearl Road is the most important north-south corridor in Cuyahoga County,” says Jeffrey Verespej, Executive Director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation (OBCDC). “It is a living monument to where Cleveland has been, where we are, and where we are going.”
The street has borne witness to many periods of human and economic unrest: violence in the streets in the 1960s and 70s, the economic blight that shuttered businesses during various periods of recession, and even introduction of big-box stores that quickly threatened the livelihood of the small business owners.
But both Verespej and Loizos (who, of course, was there at the first OBCDC meeting in 1976 when they met right there in the Glenn Restaurant) agree that the most seismic change to Pearl Road was the introduction and extreme proliferation of automobiles to the area. The streets were widened, the sidewalks were narrowed, and buildings were torn down to create parking lots.
“Much like the rest of the country, the car reigned supreme on Pearl Road,” says Verespej. “Changes were made based almost more on the needs of the car than the needs of the people. It was a blind worshipping of the automobile.”
Well over a half-century later, local investors, longstanding and new business owners and impassioned citizens are working diligently with OBCDC to transform Pearl Road back into its pedestrian-friendly days of yore where people and connectivity are valued more than cars. The effects of these multi-million dollar reinvestment efforts have been as visible as they have been transformative. The roadway has been narrowed by two lanes, the sidewalks have been expanded, and beautification efforts have abounded from banners to landscaping to public art. Upcoming plans for the Pearl Road corridor include a large-scale remediation of the park on Henninger Road and the long-planned move of OBCDC into the historic Old Atlas Furniture Building.
The results have been both a reinvigorated sense of community and the introduction of several new businesses into storefronts that have long sat empty along Pearl Road.
“Moving onto Pearl Road has been great,” says Tony Mellon, owner of Opal on Pearl, a wine- and local craft beer-focused eatery that opened this July and features cheese from their neighbor Old Brooklyn Cheese Company. “I’ve lived in the area for 13 years, and I am meeting neighbors I’ve never seen in my life.”
Again and again, business owners highlight that Pearl Road is as much about its people as it is about the road’s actual location. Mason Adkins and Berto Huertas weren’t exactly sure what to expect when they made the decision to open up Sixth City Cycles back in March. Partnering up with Coffee Coffee Coffee to convert a 1200-foot space into a combination bike-shop, fresh-drip-coffee space with a distinctive treehouse vibe, Adkins and Hertas were hopeful their presence on Pearl Road would be a welcome addition. Their hopes were immediately realized.
“People stop in constantly to tell us how happy they are to have us here,” says Adkins. “We doubled the business we thought we were going to do this summer and have established close relationships with residents and fellow business owners that you just don’t always see in other locations.”
And off to the side, watching all the change happen on Pearl Road still stands Michael Loizos. By his own admission, he will always partly feel like that 13-year-old boy who watched people gathering together in Glenn Restaurant, neighbors who would dine together twice a day pushing single tables together (“joiner tables”) to create what he describes as the distinctive Pearl Road community feel. Now almost 80, he wistfully remembers those days gone by while still remaining hopeful for the future.
“Pearl Road is so much more than a street and always has been,” says Loizos. “My father used to remind me that the only inevitable is change. Pearl Road has certainly changed, but the people are still here and the people will always keep things going.”
This article is part of our On the Ground - Old Brooklyn community reporting project in partnership with Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, Cleveland Development Advisors, and Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Read the rest of our coverage here.