ohio city's artisan economy turns the corner onto lorain

For decades, Ohio City's Lorain Avenue has been a symbol of beautiful decay, a place where hole-in-the-wall flea markets nestle up against biker bars and hot dog joints. A main drag with prostitutes plying their trade and third-hand appliance stores hawking their wares, while all around them century-old buildings fall apart brick by brick.

Yet Lorain Avenue soon may be known for more than hot dogs, thrift stores and blight. A bevy of new businesses -- including a gourmet chili restaurant, vintage clothing store, architecture office, yoga studio and spice shop -- recently have opened along the main drag. More openings are planned for this summer.

Although Lorain is unlikely to shed its rough-and-tumble image overnight -- a good thing say those who believe the street's grit adds to its appeal -- it is beginning to benefit from the development boom taking place along West 25th Street. Lured by available space, financial incentives, and comparatively lower rents, more and more entrepreneurs are setting up shop on Lorain.

"The success of the Market District has come more quickly than we thought, and now it's turning the corner onto Lorain Avenue," says Eric Wobser, Executive Director of Ohio City Inc., the nonprofit development corporation that serves the neighborhood.

Lorain Avenue's new-business boom is occurring alongside a cluster of high-profile development projects taking place in the neighborhood. Among them are MRN's Market Place development in the United Bank Building, the long-planned makeover of Market Square Park, and the West Side Market's centennial celebration. Also on tap for this summer are the openings of Crop, SoHo and Market Garden Brewery, which will pump an additional 1,000 restaurant seats into the area.

Mike McBride, a landlord who recently signed leases for a building he renovated on Lorain near Fulton, says the street continues to improve. Among his new tenants are the clothing resale shop Rag Refinery and gourmet chili shop Palookaville. "There are only so many hot dogs you can eat, so I'm glad a new place is opening."

Although it will take more than a handful of new businesses to reverse Lorain's decades-long decline, McBride is hopeful that renewed interest in the street will spur new waves of development. "I see a lot of buildings falling apart, and I think the neighborhood's success depends on preserving this commercial strip."

While a yoga studio, chili joint and vintage clothing store do not a redevelopment trend make, Ohio City's Eric Wobser says these entrepreneurs are part of something larger -- an artisan economy fueled by an increasing desire by consumers to support homegrown talent and products.

"These businesses fit in with the artisan economy," says Wobser, "and they're attracted to Lorain because it's cheap."

April Arotin could not agree more. The Northeast Ohio native recently returned from San Francisco to launch Open Yoga Gallery in a vacant storefront near W. 48th. He says that Lorain is the perfect place to nourish the budding artisan economy.

"Lorain Avenue is waking up from a decades-long nap, and with our DIY, bootstrapping ethos, there's a lot of potential here to promote artisan culture," Arotin says. "There's also synergy between businesses, and the community has really supported us."

That synergy amongst entrepreneurs is one of the factors that attracted Courtney Bonning, a pastry chef, to the area. She is planning to open a bakery and cafe in the former Athens Bakery space on Lorain near West 25th. "The other business owners here have a similar mindset, and they understand my business," she says. "I'm glad to be moving to this area in its infancy."

Wobser acknowledges that redeveloping Lorain won't be easy, but cites a string of improvement projects as undeniable signs of a comeback. Among them are St. Ignatius' new performing arts center, Penzeys Spices, David Ellison's architecture studio, and the renovation of the former Speak in Tongues building.

"West 25th is Ohio City's downtown, but Lorain is our main street," Wobser says. "It's the next frontier after the Market District, and a more vibrant Lorain can bring people together."

Wobser says that Ohio City Inc. is helping to attract new businesses to the street. Earlier this year, $130,000 of grant funding from Charter One Bank was awarded to seven new businesses expanding or relocating in Ohio City. At least one, Fit Studios, is planning to relocate to a vacant space on Lorain.

Of course, retail is a tough proposition in Cleveland, and Lorain's hodgepodge of tenants -- including a string of used car lots protected by chain link fences and vicious-looking dogs -- makes it even tougher. Yet efforts to repair the gaps in Lorain's retail fabric are being aided by the city's new Pedestrian Retail Overlay District, which fosters the pedestrian character of the district by prohibiting certain uses like gas stations, car washes and drive-thru restaurants.

Plans to create additional parking on Lorain near West 25th also are in the works. Ohio City Inc. recently was awarded a grant from Transportation for Livable Communities to study parking locations. Among the possibilities is a structured parking garage.

Lorain's revitalization also will be boosted by the recent creation of a Business Improvement District (BID) in the Market District. The BID, which passed with nearly 75-percent support from local owners, requires Ohio City businesses to pitch in for supplemental security and maintenance.

While he acknowledges that some buildings on Lorain are too dilapidated to be saved, Wobser fantasizes about making Ohio City's "Main Street" a livelier, more pedestrian-friendly road by shoring up the wall of retail-friendly buildings that comes up to the sidewalk's edge.

Father Murphy of St. Ignatius High School is one person who shares Wobser's vision. Pointing to the new Breen Performing Arts Center as an example of new development that contributes to the neighborhood's revitalization, Father Murphy sees brighter days ahead for Lorain Avenue.

"I have a dream of Lorain as beautiful, safe, productive and environmentally friendly." 

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Photo 2: Eric Wobser & Tom McNair of Ohio City Inc.
- Photos 3 &4: Ian Enggasser  of Palookaville Chili
- Photos 5 & 6: Leigh Ring of The Rag Refinery 
- Photos 7 & 8: Courtney Bonning of Bon Bon Pastry and Café

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.