Summer Smorgasbord Families Zone <span class='image-credits'></span>

Old Brooklyn

How this Cleveland neighborhood found the secret sauce for urban families to thrive

With ample greenspace, inviting residential streets, decent walkability, and an array of businesses, Old Brooklyn seems to check off many of the boxes for the modern urban family—even branding itself as “Cleveland’s accessible, family-friendly neighborhood.” But does it really live up to the hype?

Organizations like Old Brooklyn Families Group and OBALL (Old Brooklyn Area Little League) are helping to ensure that the neighborhood does just that. The former is a grassroots, volunteer-run collective offering community programming and connection, while the latter is a long-time Little League program that has shaped Old Brooklyn’s family-friendly fabric for decades.

“I think sometimes people are surprised by the number of families here and the strong relationships within the neighborhood,” says Meghan Chrobak, one of the original OBFG founders. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that we all have this goal or desire to be connected, down to the littlest of little kids through all other ages.”

Old Brooklyn Families Group

When a core group of Old Brooklyn families started running into each other at kid-friendly activities in the suburbs all too frequently, they knew it was time to bring the fun closer to home.

Painting in the Park“One of the ideas [behind OBFG] was to provide family programming opportunities within the neighborhood so that we didn’t have to go out to the suburbs,” says Chrobak. “Our goal was to make a difference and fill the void.”

According to co-founder Kristen Wilson, the group’s formation in 2014 also coincided with Jeff Verespej taking the helm of Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation. Verespej had reached out to Wilson, Chrobak, and some other local parents about starting a parents’ group, and the dots just connected.

“We wanted to connect people from one end of Old Brooklyn to another, because it’s such a large neighborhood in square miles and population,” says Wilson. Adds Chrobak, “There are also a significant number of schools in the neighborhood, so we wanted to build up the community in a really meaningful way. Even though we all attend different schools, we’re all neighbors.”

Summer Smorgasbord Family ZoneFour years later, OBFG is thriving—with monthly meetings and a presence at neighborhood events like Summer Smorgasbord and Old Brooklyn Farmers Market. Initially, the group hosted monthly events, but since it’s a small, volunteer-run group, OBFG found more success affiliating with larger community events like Pedal for Prizes, Fall-o-Ween, and Cocoa & Cookies with Santa—and working with organizations (like Kiwanis and Old Brooklyn Community Collaborators), local churches, and nearby business owners to make them happen.

“We used to do smaller events, but they didn’t have the same significance as pulling out hundreds of people and really getting the neighborhood together,” explains Wilson.

Wilson and Chrobak also take pride in OBFG’s Market Dollars program, through which the group sets up a booth at the Farmers Market and distributes $10 in “Market Dollars” to up to 10 families each week. They also host “Try, Taste, Decide” samplings for families to preview what the vendors' offerings, and participants get entry into a raffle to win a basket of farmers market goodies. “Market Dollars is by far our most heartfelt program in terms of really giving back to the community,” says Wilson.

The Fall-o-Ween festival is OBFG’s next big thing—and Wilson is anticipating that this year’s attendance will double last year’s with around 800 people, thanks to the introduction of a “Trick-or-Treat Trail” of more than 20 Pearl Road-based participating businesses.

On the heels of OBFG winning OBCDC's Founders Award in 2017, Wilson is proud of the group’s growth to date, but she says it’s just the beginning. “It’s hard to connect small, let alone big, neighborhoods, but we’ve had great achievements over the last few years and I think it will keep progressing.”

OBALL

Each May, Little League season kicks off in Old Brooklyn with an opening ceremony in Loew Park—replete with the national anthem, a flag presentation by Junior ROTC, and remarks from Old Brooklyn resident and Cleveland City Council president Kevin Kelley. According to OBALL treasurer Laurie Konczos, the 2018 ceremony was even more of a “special opening because of the work completed on improving Loew Park.”

Loew Park itself is somewhat of a living homage to the OBALL legacy, with two fields dedicated to league coaches. Field #1 is named after OBALL founder Eugene Duke, while Field #4 is named for TJ Taylor (an OBALL coach who passed away from esophageal cancer in 2016). While most of the games are held at Loew Park, some are also held at Harmody Park, Brookside Field, and several other locations—and Konczos sees as a double benefit to the community.

“If OBALL players and families were not at these parks, they might get run down and deserted,” she explains.

Konczos says the league—which was in existence as an indie league long before its incorporation as a nonprofit in 1994—speaks to the generational diversity of Old Brooklyn. She should know: Both her 56-year-old husband and son played in the league, and she’s been a volunteer for years. “My son has many of his lifelong friends from his years playing OBALL, and we routinely have dads coaching who played OBALL as kids who are now coaching their own children,” she shares.

The league itself spans multiple generations, serving both boys and girls ages 3 to 15; even those over 15 continue to participate in city leagues via the OBALL umbrella sponsorship. Four co-ed divisions are offered, along with “3BALL” (a six-week program of baseball-themed playtime to prepare 3-year-olds for TBALL) and a growing Girls Fast Pitch Softball division.

OBALL Day at Progressive Field“OBALL is an integral part of Old Brooklyn because of the life and activity that happens on the ball fields in our neighborhood,” says Konczos. “[The league also] gives the kids of Old Brooklyn a chance to make friends that don't necessarily go to their school, since many kids go to Cleveland public schools or some of the neighborhood’s private or charter schools.”

Other league traditions include an “All-Star Day” featuring a home run derby and a fundraiser for Old Brooklyn Food Pantry, and a spirited Cleveland Indians outing. “Our group parades the field before the game, and it is quite a sight to see our league walking around Progressive Field with all the colors of our team shirts with the OBALL logo,” says Konczos.

Naturally, there’s a fair amount of overlap with the Old Brooklyn Families Group as well—with OBALL families often taking an active part in the events and meetings. Wilson of OBFG actually credits OBALL with kickstarting Old Brooklyn’s family-friendly feel before their group was in existence.

“Because our neighborhood is so large, we have a lot of mini-neighborhoods, and not a lot of people were crossing paths outside of OBALL,” says Wilson. “We thought OBFG would be a good way to further get people out of their bubbles.”

And, between the two groups, they’ve managed to score a home run on that front.

Check out the below video of 2018 Opening Day from Instagram user @PressworkGraphicsLLC:



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.

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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