Call it the potbelly of Cleveland.
Once the epicenter of Eastern Europeans of Polish, Slovak, and Czech descent coming from Europe in the early 1900's, Slavic Village still boasts delis and novelty shops selling books and music in every language except English, and traditional labels typically found in quaint European towns.
Throughout the decades, family-owned businesses have come and gone, the population has dwindled with migration to the suburbs and other cities, and the booming manufacturing sector that provided somany jobs has steeply declined. However, Slavic traditions and pride continue to seep through the streets, homes, and businesses of this ethnic and historical neighborhood. On a path similar to the ones area hotspots such as Ohio City, Tremont, and Detroit Shoreway took towards revitalization, Slavic Village is emerging from years of economic hardship and population loss.
Slavic Village is more than meets the eye.
“We are taking Fleet Avenue back to its original roots as the gathering place for a walkable, livable, and bike-able neighborhood,” says Chris Alvarado, executive director of the Slavic Village Development (SVD), of the community.
Navigating Slavic Village has been challenging due to road construction on Fleet Avenue. The ongoing Fleet Avenue Streetscape project has the area under heavy construction, frustrating business owners and residents alike. Yet most are optimistic about the remodel of one of the the neighborhood's main streets. Fortunately the work is slated for completion by the end of this month.
Much of the work done by the SVD has focused on the housing development on both sides of Fleet and now the organization is concentrating on commercial development on Fleet, particularly as construction comes to an end.
“It will be the first complete green street in the city of Cleveland equipped with bike lanes, transit waiting environments, benches, trees, and bio-soils that are part of the sewer district's green infrastructure,” says Alvarado.
Did Someone Say Jedzmy? ( Let's Eat?)
Where there is food, there are people. And while some businesses have closed, others remain dedicated to the cultural essence of ethnic food. Seven Roses Deli, 6301 Fleet Avenue, is a community pillar and one such example.
Step into this combination residential/store front business – a building style that characterizes Slavic Village – and you're greeted with aromas only found in authentic Polish cooking. They waft through the retail portion of the shop and all the way through the restaurant, where a buffet lunch offers potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, and much more.
This charming old-world space is outfitted with floor-to-ceiling shelving that houses a selection of Polish and European grocery items such as pitted sour cherries, Zergut Ikra eggplant spread and Cracovia polish dill pickles. Antique rolling library ladders that slide from one end of the deli to the other help customers reach for goods on higher shelves.
Seven Roses Deli
The kitchen's expert in Polish cooking is Sophia Tyl, who immigrated from Poland in 1965. She runs Seven Roses, which opened in 2004, with her daughter Tina.
“I love to cook dishes that I grew up with and my family grew up with," says Tyl. "Cooking is sharing and that is what I do.”
She, too, admits that construction on Fleet Avenue has hampered her business the past several months, but now with the project almost done and the weather tolerable, she hopes things will turn around.
“Having lived in Slavic Village since my arrival to the U.S., I've seen the neighborhood undergo changes, some for the best and some for the worst," notes Tyl. but I think with new businesses popping up and the renovation of Fleet Avenue, people won't hesitate to come to our neighborhood for a good time and lots of food.”
First time customer Herb Brosnan III heard about how the deli was as authentic as Polish restaurants in Poland.
“Having gone to and lived in Poland, this is as absolutely authentic as it comes. I mean it's real Polish dishes made from scratch,” says Brosnan. “Each dish taste like something a Polish mom would make. It's exactly how you would find it in Europe.”
Krusinski's Finest Meats
Just east on Fleet you'll find the Slavic Village market and the Red Chimney restaurant. Both establishments have been there for years, making them as much a part of the community as the people who frequent them. They give the neighborhood a small town feel in an area surrounded by a big city vibe. Also, one block north of Seven Roses sits Krusinski's Finest Meats, 6300 Heisley Avenue. Founded in 1953, the grocery selection may be limited, but the service counter is full up with homemade sausages, smokies, pierogi and stuffed cabbage. As if to exemplify how things endure, Bob, who works the counter and cash register, started at this job just after he graduated from high school some 55 years ago.
There is room for a modern trend as well, particularly one that's got an old school vibe. To increase intimacy and authenticity throughout the neighborhood, Alvarado notes the weekly Slavic Village farmer's market is back every Monday from 4 to 7 p.m. at East 52nd and Fleet Avenue.
“What really makes this special is that we have the City Fresh CSA, you can buy vegetables from the Green Corps," says Alvarado. "We have over 100 local businesses in homes throughout Slavic Village and we wanted to give them the opportunity to expand outside the home with the market."
Heaven on wheels
These days, it's not unusual to see more cyclists traversing the streets of Slavic Village and Mill Creek Reservation, which is, incidentally, home to the largest waterfall in Cuyahoga County. The Morgana Run Trail is a two-mile bicycling and walking path that stretches from E. 49th street to Jones Road. It's off the beaten path and an unexpected surprise that provides a quiet and relaxing respite from the surrounding urban setting.
The Morgana Trail is a national model for engaging urban communities and connecting neighborhoods through trails and nature. It promotes urban revitalization, enhances transportation opportunities and helps improve pedestrian mobility.
“We have made a very concerted effort to increase walkability, bike-ability in the neighborhood,” Alvarado says, adding that the trail cuts through the whole neighborhood from East 49th all the way to Harvard and Broadway. "We are working with the entire network to connect to downtown and to connect with the Tow Path trail.”
The neighborhood is also home to the state's only Olympic style Velodrome, 5033 Broadway Ave. For serious cyclists and amateurs alike, the velodrome adds a thrilling level of excitement to any ride. Operated under Fast Track Cycling, the organization offers free youth programming. Adults can join in on the fun with a free learn to ride class.
Gary Burkholder, secretary and board of directors of Fast Track Cycling, says the community has responded well to the Velodrome.
Gary Burkholder“Since we opened the Velodrome, our attendance in classes and overall membership has increased,” says Burkholder. “We are excited to have a facility like this one that is in tune to the cycling community of Slavic Village. Having it here allows us to expand the facility in the future - and the proximity to the bike trail is convenient”
For the more traditional cyclists, Al Zaleski, owner of Fleet Bike Shop, 5002 Fleet Ave, offers approximately 200 used bikes for sale a year. Each unit is completely overhauled and repaired over the winter and priced between $25 and $100. The shop has been a fixture in the neighborhood since 1971.
Lastly for those of us still chained to a motorized four-wheeler, why pay retail to keep all four wheels looking flashy? Hubcap Heaven, 5455 Broadway Ave., which was founded in 1958, boasts an inventory of some 250,000 hubcaps.
A Place to Call Home
The core of urban revitalization is connecting new people with a place that's badly in need of their energy. In Slavic Village, entrepreneurs are taking risks and moving into spaces that have undergone little renovation since the 1950s, but those vintage buildings and tin ceilings charm eager aspiring business owners.
“You look at all the neighborhoods in Cleveland and the ones that are being very thoughtful about building neighborhoods and connecting with folks are the ones using a very similar urban model that includes authentic small businesses and promoting accessibility.”
Two women who are going into unchartered territory - both in the business sense and by way of their choice of store front location - are paving the way for future businesses to join them when they move into 5324 Fleet Ave.
California native Penny Barend and Cleveland native Melissa Khoury will call Fleet Avenue home to Saucisson in the coming months. Both women love everything pork and have harnessed a career typically dominated by men: butchering. After years of both working as chefs in various restaurants, Barend and Khoury decided to take their passion of hand curing meats and selling hard to find products at farmer's markets throughout Cleveland to a storefront.
“It was important that wherever we went, we found a space that one: felt like a home; and two: we wanted to be a part of something. I love Tremont and Ohio City and all these neighborhoods, but we would be moving in along some really big names, which would be great, but we would also be just another store on the block,” says Khoury. “Moving to Fleet Avenue is definitely a risk for us in that we need people to venture out into this neighborhood," she says, adding that when they do, a little exploration will pay off. "When people come to visit, I hope they will rediscover places like Seven Roses."
Culture: old and new
The deep ethnic roots in the area are evidenced by the gorgeous Bohemian National Hall, 4939 Broadway Ave., which was built in 1896 as a space that would accommodate the social needs of Cleveland's Czech community. As the home of Sokol Greater Cleveland, the center is still an active hub for many of Northeast Ohio's residents of Czech descent. Activities include traditional Sunday dinners, Cotillion Balls and the more modern aerial silks classes.
The Slovenian National Home, 3563 East 80th St., also known as "The Nash" has been a bit quiet of late, but the site recently hosted an evening of Accidental Comedy in the facility, which dates back to 1917 and includes 12 bowling lanes. Later this month, the site will host its first annual golf outing.
Bohemian National Hall Ball Room
As with so many of Cleveland's emerging neighborhoods, the arts are playing a big part in the renaissance. Slavic Village is no exception. The former Magalen Furniture, which occupied a 12,000-square-foot-space at 5203 Fleet Ave. since 1952, is now undergoing a transformation into The Magalen, a mixed-use art gallery and studio space.
Public art blooms throughout the community as well, such as with the mural on the Morgana Run Trail and the Broadway Arch located on the corner of East 49th street. Both help to give the neighborhood identity.
Vince Reddy, a project manager at LAND studio who has been involved with the installations says they give architectural intrigue to a street, building or neighborhood that may have been forgotten by a community.
“You can use artwork, which can be a big investment, but a relatively small investment in terms of the benefit it provides,” says Reddy. “It provides communities with an identity, especially if the artwork is very unusual in structure or design," he adds, noting that it also inspires activity in areas that people may have otherwise given up on. "I think that it provides a psychological boost to the people living around public artwork."
A more controversial artistic endeavor is the annua Rooms to Let (RTL) project, in which area artists use houses, some of which are slated for demolition, as three-dimensional canvases. While Fresh Water fielded comments from those who found the 2016 RTL project and this associated photo essay offensive, calling it "dancing on the graves" of these homes, some members of our staff felt it was more like leaving flowers upon them.
And with a nod to the area's long history, located on 3649 East 65th street and at the heart of the neighborhood is The Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus. With its protruding twin spires and Gothic styling, St. Stanislaus is the epitome of the Polish community since the mid-1800s. By stepping foot in the church, parishioners and visitors take a journey through history. In 1969, Pope John Paul II, then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla visited the church. A piece of his relic from an assassination attempt is on display in the church.With around 1,200 registered parishioners, St. Stanislaus gives masses in English and Polish.
Something for Everyone
Whether you're looking to reconnect to family heritage or you're craving some authentic Eastern European cuisine, Slavic Village is an underrated neighborhood plagued by a challenging reputation associated with job loss and the foreclosure crisis, but don't fall into the trap of naysayers. It's a neighborhood that speaks volumes about Cleveland's immigrant community and is changing the course of Cleveland for the better.
“Regardless of what your economic or ethnic background, this is a neighborhood that has something for everyone, we have folks who are leasing homes to be able to purchase them. We've got Connie Schultz and Senator Sherrod Brown living in the neighborhood," says Alvarado. "This is the wide variety of people who call this home. I think there is a place for every one here and we build community by welcoming diversity," he adds.
"We are hanging our hat on it.”
Erin O'Brien contributed to this article.