cedar lee merchants say despite recent tragedies, community is stable, strong

John Zagara says he can’t remember a sadder year in Cleveland Heights’ Cedar-Lee neighborhood than 2014.

In his letter to the Cedar Lee Special Improvement District stakeholders, the board president and owner of Zagara’s Marketplace wrote of beloved business owner Jim Brennan, who was murdered in June at the bar and restaurant he had operated for more than 20 years.

In October, a former employee of The Katz Club Diner set the popular bar and eatery on fire, heavily damaging recently refurbished historic diner cars. Following the fire, three businesses, Sweetie Fry, Cedar Lee Pub & Grill and Unique Melodies boutique, closed their doors.

The events, which occurred in a short period of time, received aggressive, repetitive media coverage and fueled a perception for those not familiar with the area that it was unsafe and in decline. The reality, based on numerous interviews and a review of crime data, shows a safe and stable business district with intense civic support and a spate of improvement plans. 

The inner ring suburb has experienced the same cyclical ups and downs that any business and entertainment area goes through as it attempts to remain competitive and relevant, especially with competition from new, nearby districts. Violent crimes in the Cedar-Lee business district have remained low for the past three years, with robberies, which include aggravated and attempted, declining from 16 to four between 2012 and 2014, two felonious assaults in the same period, and a single rape, a single arson and a single murder during that time, according to incident reports from the Cleveland Heights Police Department.

“It’s really frustrating because something bad will happen, and it’s all you hear about to the point where you do think the world is on fire,” says Sheryl Banks, who lives in the Cedar-Lee district and is the marketing and community relations manager at the Lee Road Library. “But once you step away from your computer and go outside, you realize things are fine. I think the best thing someone can do if they are concerned about this community is take a walk. People need to get away from their computers, get offline and experience the community with their own eyes.”

A business and entertainment anchor

The Cedar-Lee business district, which stretches a mile along Lee Road from Cain Park to the main branch of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library, has always housed a variety of businesses. The area has some of the defining institutions in Cleveland Heights, including the Cedar Lee Theatre, which opened in 1925, and Dobama Theatre, which was founded in 1959.

Cedar Lee Theatre in 1941 - Michael Schwartz LibraryThe district also, historically and now, has been a service center. Cedar-Lee was once home to Bruder’s Creamery, Seitz-Agin Hardware and Marshall’s Drug Store. Zagara’s Marketplace, a locally-owned grocery store, has remained in the area for more than 75 years. Mitchell’s Fine Chocolates has roots in the district as far back as 1939. People can drop off dry cleaning, take a yoga class, have a beer, browse and buy work from local artists or purchase fair trade goods made across the world.  Diners can order pizza, pad thai, pita and hummus or pulled pork carnitas from the diverse restaurants. Most of the businesses are locally-owned. Tree-lined, residential streets populated with homeowners and renters feed into the district, making the area walkable for many.

What may be the most striking aspect of the Cedar Lee business district, however, is the community’s constant support of the area. After Jim Brennan was killed, more than 1,200 people attended a vigil held the following night. The widely reported, senseless shooting in June shocked and saddened the neighborhood, and scared the region. The four suspects, one of whom was a former employee at the pub, were arrested, and Cleveland Heights Police Chief Jeffrey Robertson announced that they gave full confessions on the day of Brennan’s funeral, just days after the incident. According to an article published in the Plain Dealer Nov. 14, their trial is set for March 25, and each has now pleaded not guilty.  

“I was saddened and horrified by what happened, but I was also really scared for the area. In my opinion, those were isolated incidents, but I thought people from outside of the area wouldn’t want to come here anymore,” Banks said over a cup of coffee at The Stone Oven, a popular sandwich and salad shop in the district. “When The Colony reopened, you couldn’t get in there. Instead of letting an incident like that beat us, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah? We’re better than that.'”

And Kelley Robinson, director of the Cedar Lee SID, says businesses aren’t closing in Cedar-Lee because of crime.

“It’s not unusual for any new business that’s in the two- to five-year stage to fail,” Robinson says. “It’s a tough environment for businesses in general, and it’s even more challenging for new businesses. You’d probably have to compare them and their respective sector. For instance, Unique Melodies boutique has closed, she was there for two years, but Revive has been there for 8 years. We’ve had several businesses on the street that have been there for more than 35 years.”

Crime trends

The Cleveland Heights Police Department now posts its crime statistics, as reported to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, on its website. So far, the rates of robbery, theft and burglary across the city are on pace to be lower in 2014 than in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Burglaries have dropped from 261 incidents in 2012 to 158 so far in 2014, and robberies have decreased from 89 in 2012 to 53 in 2014. The clearance rate, or rate in which crimes end with an arrest or other “exceptional means,” are higher in Cleveland Heights than the average of other police agencies with a similar population for all types of crime. And the clearance rates for Cleveland Heights have increased from 2012 to 2013.  

However, violent crimes have increased significantly in Cleveland Heights overall if you compare figures from 1985 to 2012, which are available on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports website. The number of violent crimes, which include murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, including attempted incidents, totaled 168 in 2012, the highest of all years available. Violent crime reports were low most of 2000 to 2010, with only 13 reported in both 2003 and 2004. The incidents increased to 84 in 2009, dropped to 73 in 2010 and shot up to 143 in 2011.

When asked about the increase, Robertson says he uses 2011 as a baseline to track how various programs and technology he’s implemented since he became chief have worked over the years. Sometimes the way violent crimes are categorized can be misleading, too, he says. For example, robberies include incidents where shoplifting suspects push security guards as they try to flee the scene. 

“I know since the end of 2010 to now that crimes have dropped and arrests have increased,” Robertson said. “If we have a burglary or any type of crime, we do immediate, you could even say relentless follow-ups … It’s a small number of people here who commit the majority of crimes. The more we arrest them, the more we reduce [crimes].”

Local support

Elisabeth Gevelber, who owns Simply Charming, a gift shop on Lee Road, says the tragic incidents that have happened over the past few months have not hurt business for her. In fact, sales are up 44 percent this year. She moved back to Cleveland Heights two-and-a-half years ago after testing the market in the Cedar Center area.
Simply Charming - Heights Observer
“There’s been shoplifting and I have asked people to leave, but I had a store in Rocky River 10 years ago, and it was worse there,” she says. “I had so much more theft.

“People who live outside of the neighborhood, the next day after Jim was murdered, they came to the store and said, ‘I’m not from the Heights area but we’re here to support you.’ It’s a community unlike any other I’ve been around. People want to be part of the neighborhood and they want to support local businesses.”

She and her staff of mostly women have never felt uncomfortable in the district, she says.

“There are idiots everywhere. I think because it’s a more blended neighborhood, it has a more urban feel to it and that’s why people love living here,” she says. “But it’s also why people are scared.  It’s odd to me, and it makes me sad.”

According to 2010 census figures, about 50 percent of the population of 45,394 in Cleveland Heights identifies as white, and 42.5 percent identify as black or African American, compared to roughly 87 percent of the population of Ohio identifying as white, and 12 percent identifying as black or African American. About 19 percent of people are below the poverty line in Cleveland Heights, according to figures from 2008-2012, compared to 15.4 percent in the state. The area is more educated statistically than the rest of the state: 93 percent of people 25 and older have a high school degree or higher in Cleveland Heights, compared to 88 percent in the state, and half of the city has a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to a quarter of people living in the state.

Though store traffic has not changed at Simply Charming, some businesses in the area, mostly restaurateurs, said at a recent meeting that they were down 30 percent, and noticed a drop after the shooting at The Colony. But many, including Declan Synnott, who has owned Parnell's Pub for 18 years, attribute that to competition from the newly revamped Uptown area in University Circle, and other nearby neighborhoods like Ohio City and Tremont.

“Seven years ago, Legacy Village was just a baby, University Circle was there but the new development wasn’t there. Now you’ve got East 4th, you’ve got West 25th and Playhouse Square, which is exploding,” says Synnott, who recently opened another Parnell’s location in the theater district. “We’re all vying for that dollar. (People want) the new and trendy, and they forget about how good the old is. ”

Adam Fleischer has owned The Wine Spot, part retail wine and beer store, part bar and neighborhood hangout, for almost four years. He was raised in Cleveland Heights and lived away from the area for a number of years, but wanted to come back and raise his family.

Adam Fleischer owner of The Wine SpotThough he has strong local support and customers from other areas, he says he’s concerned about how the portrayal of the business district has affected people who don’t live in the community. He said his friend, who is from Cleveland Heights but now lives in another suburb, has heard neighbors talk about their fears of Cedar Lee.

“We are concerned that there are people who were coming here and now may decide not to come here because of the perception it’s not safe when we know it’s as safe as any community in Cleveland,” he said. “It’s this freak succession of these terrible events. It’s a compressed period of time and a concentration of negativity.”

Making it a destination

New streetscape improvements planned for the district in the spring of 2015 may give loyal customers another reason to choose Cedar-Lee and help to welcome new visitors. The Cedar Lee Special Improvement District, the city of Cleveland Heights and Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency completed plans for a more unified look back in 2008 and met several times throughout the years to fine tune the project with engineers CDM Smith and subcontractor studioTECHNE architects, the firm that has helped guide the aesthetics of the area since the Lee Road Library pedestrian bridge was designed and constructed.
New Lee Meadowbrook Streetscape
Richard Wong, director of planning and development for Cleveland Heights, says some of the most noticeable changes in the district include plans for new, pedestrian level lighting that illuminates sidewalks evenly instead of like a spotlight and casts a softer glow. They’re also installing five “refuge islands” or planted medians at midblock crosswalks to give walkers a place to stop safely in the middle of crossing the street, to make them more visible to drivers. The 50- to 100-foot-long islands have been shown in traffic studies to reduce the likelihood of a pedestrian getting hit by 46 percent, he said.

Crosswalks will also have more paint and thick, diagonal lines to make them safer and new accessible parking and drop off areas for people with physical disabilities will make it easier for people to navigate the district. Planters will be moved and possibly replaced to open up space on sidewalks, Wong said. New, uniform bike racks will also be added, and there will be a repair stand with tools near Cain Park.

The $3 million project, paid for by county and federal funds, will also include repaving Lee Road and new traffic lights with more efficient timing to get cars through the area faster. Construction will start at 11 p.m. and end at 7 a.m. to try and prevent disruptions. The estimated completion date for the construction is October 2015.   

In addition to a new look, the Cedar Lee SID is continuing to host special events to draw people to the district, including the upcoming Holiday Stroll on Dec. 13, which will include live music and shopping. Chef Doug Katz, who owns The Katz Club Diner – still closed as he rebuilds after the arson – will offer small plates at The Wine Spot. The Cedar-Fairmount and Coventry business districts will also host special events, and Lolly the Trolley will give visitors free rides between the neighborhoods. Parking will also be free that weekend and all other weekends between Thanksgiving and the last weekend in December.

Mayor Dennis Wilcox said he hopes this event is as successful as the Heights Music Hop and the Kids Candy Crawl, which each drew in more than 1,000 people to the area, and shows people how unique and special the district is.

“People who have lived in Cleveland Heights for many years like myself appreciate what we have, and sometimes I think we take it for granted when you see a lot of the new developments coming around,” said Wilcox, who has served on council since 1999. “They try to duplicate what we already have, the mix of the residential and the business, and the unique businesses, not just a bunch of chains. People in Cleveland Heights like the walkability, the bikeability, the trees. They just like the way the city feels.”

Read more articles by Michelle Simakis.

Michelle Simakis is editor of Garden Center magazine, a trade publication serving independent garden center retailers and lives in Cleveland. She has also covered Cleveland Heights for Patch.com, an online community news source.