It's a question we all wish we had the answer to. But for folks looking to settle down and plant roots, that question undoubtedly refers to place. Neighborhood is everything, and selecting the wrong one can be no less painful than choosing the wrong mate.
In this running series, Fresh Water
explores emerging Cleveland neighborhoods that are primed for growth. This week, writer Lee Chilcote examines Larchmere.
Larchmere Boulevard might just be Cleveland’s best-kept secret. This classic commercial strip has never earned the attention of Coventry, W. 25th Street or East 4th Street, but it offers one of the best examples of a “complete” neighborhood in the region, chock full of retail and residential within a walkable, transit-friendly neighborhood.
Take a stroll: You can shop for an antique table at a store whose friendly owner whiles away your afternoon with charming stories about neighborhood history. Shop for yarn in an old, restored house stuffed with hidden treasures. Dine in a timeless restaurant that never seems to change, or sip trendy cocktails in a garage transformed into a bar.
If you don’t know how to get here, you’re not alone. Shop owners like to tell customers, who come from across Northeast Ohio and beyond, that Larchmere
sits one block north of historic Shaker Square
, situated between E. 121st and North Moreland. However, once you find it, you might not want to ever leave.
A Neighborhood on the Fringes
Within that close-knit stretch, dozens of businesses thrive, including car repair shops, art galleries, hair and nail salons, barber shops, rug shops and clothing stores. Area services run the gamut from book binding to flower arranging, design to dog grooming. People lucky enough to live on one of its charming side streets can walk almost everywhere.
Yet some say the area is in need of greater attention to reach its full potential, and that change must happen for the area to stay strong. “For 20 years, Larchmere has stayed on the cusp of up-and-coming,” jokes Harriett Logan, owner of Loganberry Books
, the city’s largest indie book store. (Zubal Books
, while larger, isn't open to the public.)
“I enjoy being on the fringe and being a real homegrown Cleveland neighborhood,” she elaborates. “We still have great destination traffic and great thoroughfare traffic. But we’re not on the list of everyday neighborhood haunts the way that Coventry is.”
Change will be arriving this spring in the form of a streetscape project. The million dollar facelift, funded by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA
), as well as Cleveland and Shaker Heights (Larchmere spans both cities), will replace buckled sidewalks and add benches, public art, artistic bike racks and funky crosswalks.
Although development tends to occur organically here, the Larchmere Merchants Association has continued to press for change on the street, say area business owners. That includes working with three nonprofit groups that stake claim to the area and insisting owners play a role in shaping the streetscape design.
Merchant input was responsible for ensuring that the cities “didn’t just rip up sidewalks and trees and replace them with sidewalks and trees,” quips Logan. Area merchants are especially proud of the bike racks, designed by artist Tom Hubbard to resemble antique chairs, a nod to the area’s heritage as a furniture and antiques district.
"Larchmere is tough and idiosyncratic and has a really good future," says Joel Ratner
, President of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress
, which recently completed the Saint Luke's
redevelopment. CNP is working on ambitious plans for the Larchmere area that still are under wraps. "We need to build the capacity to achieve those possibilities. There's a lot of work to be done, and it won’t happen by itself."
Pushing for an All-Day District
The merchants hope that the streetscape project, along with a push by businesses such as Loganberry to organize more evening events that encourage a day-and-night crowd, will revitalize the street and keep residents and visitors coming back for more. They’re also heartened by recent investments in the area, including the renovation of the old American Crafts building, once a streetcar substation that served the neighborhood.
is scheduled to expand into the space this month, moving from a smaller storefront down the street into a completely renovated brick building with high ceilings.
A small influx of new shopkeepers
, many of whom live and work in the neighborhood, also has provided a boost. Susan Rozman, owner of Fiddlehead Gallery
at E. 128th Street, is one of them. She bought a 1920s Colonial seven years ago and then opened her gallery after getting downsized from a job.
“I lived in the neighborhood and saw great things happening with the restaurants, lots of activity stirring up,” she says. “There was a storefront that was really the perfect size for me. It was a bit of a stretch, and I had to rearrange my lifestyle. But I like the face-to-face contact I have, and promoting people who still make things with their hands.”
Rozman, who enjoys walking to work, has gotten involved in the community, painting empty buildings, organizing a City Repair project and heading up the merchants group.
Yet she, too, says Larchmere needs new faces. Many of the classic antique stores have limited hours, and nighttime traffic can be sparse. “We have to headhunt for some great independent businesses. We have a number of empty storefronts. I’d love to see some really smart, smaller stores. We need a bike store and more restaurants on the street.”
Larchmere Loves Small Business
Larchmere has become a veritable incubator for small businesses of nearly every stripe. There literally are dozens of stories of shopkeepers gaining a foothold only to later expand on the street. One such success story is Metheny Weir
, a decorative painting company that started off in a cramped Shaker Heights basement before opening on the street.
“The women that leave our shop, whether it's a workshop or a how-to from us, leave feeling really inspired and empowered,” says Sue Weir, who co-owns the business with Kim Metheny. “We talk about these kumbaya
moments that happen. Workshops and meeting people is the best part. We keep saying that ‘it's more than just paint.’”
Two years ago, Metheny Weir expanded into a larger renovated storefront at E. 130th. The firm is an exclusive Cleveland provider of Annie Sloane
chalk paint. The women host workshops like “A Chair Affair,” where participants learn how to refinish chairs, the art of decorative painting or how to stencil on furniture.
Stories like this are common, says Heide Rivchun, owner of Conservation Studios
, a go-to source for furniture restoration. “Part of what makes this area so exceptional is there are so many merchants who own their buildings and live in the community,” she explains. “There’s a ramped up level of community involvement that’s important to me.”
Rivchun, like so many others here, bought into the live-work notion decades ago. She lives on nearby Britton Avenue, a side street off a side street that she calls “the smallest street in Cleveland.” Despite its diminutive size, it has a great sense of community. The neighbors here all know each other, holding plant sales and block parties all summer long.
Diverse in House and Resident
There are plenty of residential options in Larchmere, including apartments, condos, new townhouses, doubles and single-families -- but finding the right spot can take persistence and connections. Apartments rent quickly, houses sell before they’re listed. Rivchun once learned of a house for sale while walking her dog; 15 minutes later, she’d struck a deal.
In addition to being one of the most architecturally diverse streets in Cleveland -- where else can one find century-old Colonials next to elegant apartment buildings with first-floor retail? -- Larchmere is where east meets west, black meets white, and the international ethnicity of the Heights spills over into Cleveland.
The neighborhood’s many events, including Porchfest
and the Larchmere Festival, help to highlight the community’s diversity. Larchmere quietly has become one of the city’s most successful African-American business districts. For example, James Boyd of Polished Professionals
moved back from Las Vegas to start a barber shop here.
“Our customers are very diverse and multicultural,” says Brian Mauzy, the chef-owner at Jezebel’s Bayou
, a New Orleans style restaurant located on Larchmere. “We get a lot of neighborhood traffic, but we’re also a destination restaurant. Lately, we’ve been getting Case students, especially foreign students, who like spices.”
Mauzy, who hosted a huge Mardi Gras party on Fat Tuesday, believes in Larchmere, but also says the community needs more restaurants and nightlife to continue to thrive.
“There’s younger people moving into the neighborhood, and we need to bring a flavor more like Ohio City to the area,” he says. “We need businesses that stay open later, and to grab a few more businesses so that there’s more for younger people to do.”
Photos Bob Perkoski