Portrait of a neighborhood: How cultural hub La Villa Hispana is evolving and embracing its future

On a recent Thursday in April, Jenice Contreras walked in front of 32 investors, architects, and community development corporation reps to announce some long-awaited news.

“It’s a perfect storm,” she announced to the group at the Greater Cleveland Partnership offices downtown. “It took three decades. But we no longer need three decades to make it happen. All the right elements are now in place.”

Contreras, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Hispanic Center for Economic Development (NEOHCED), was talking about the renovations for the La Villa Hispana neighborhood in Clark-Fulton, a multi-million development project for—and by—Cleveland’s Latin and Hispanic community.

After years of delay and political setbacks, Contreras happily rattled off a shining list of accomplishments:

  • a 15-building overhaul that will cost $55 million;
  • a $100,000 streetscape makeover aided by MetroHealth;
  • and the $14 million, 52,000 square-foot Centro Villa 25.
The prime driver of the whole endeavor, Centro Villa 25 will serve as the loud-colored epicenter of La Villa, complete with a 21-kiosk micro retail center, CDC hub space, and area for a “trendy, upscale Latin restaurant.”

All of these developments will be fronted by a glorifying arch reading "BIENVENIDOS A LA VILLA HISPANA, [so] drivers know exactly where they’re entering,” according to Contreras.

Her vision isn’t just a CDC pipe dream, it’s a potential game-changer for the city of Cleveland. Just ask the four researchers from Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs who published an economic impact report on La Villa in October 2018,. They found that, in the next eight years of development, the project could bring about 296 jobs annually, producing about $196 million in cumulative value.

The study also pointed out areas of caution for developers: nearly half of the Clark-Fulton population (roughly 11,000 Hispanics) live below the poverty line, 18 percent are unemployed, and 35 percent lack a high school diploma.

The challenge Contreras and her partners have is whether they can convince investors that Clark-Fulton doesn’t just need a Latin market, but that such a market could save it. The catch? They only have until June 30 to land 100 percent of commitments for the funding. If they don’t, Contreras says La Villa might be delayed, once again—and lose more than $3 million of equity funding.

La Villa's champion

Among those present at the April meeting, perhaps Contreras best embodies the past struggles and current joys of La Villa’s progress. She was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, and raised by her mother in San Lorenzo. From the age of six, Contreras spent many family vacations coming to Cleveland, and when Contreras was 13, she and her mother relocated to Ohio in 1990 to find a job in the pharmaceutical industry.  

“You always feel torn going back and forth,” she says. “Your heart is in Puerto Rico, but your opportunity to raise a family, do better is in the [continental] United States. It’s the American Dream, plain and simple.”

After bouncing around apartments in Ohio City and in Clark-Fulton, Contreras quickly became hip to local politics. She learned English and joined a local youth group at the Cristo Rey Chapel. She witnessed Latin families relocating to the Clark-Fulton neighborhood in droves, some migrating off the tail end of a steel industry boom.

And then there were the other neighbors moving in: retail stores that were indifferent to their customers’ desires. “When I was younger I didn’t have a name for it,” she says. “But then the chapel down the street got bought by a CVS. The Club de San Lorenzo was sold to Walgreens.”

Contreras laughs at her naivete in retrospect: “I can’t believe we were sold to think that was a good thing.”

In the early 2000s, Contreras set her sights on shaping the future of a neighborhood with an ambiguous identity: Was Clark-Fulton going to us, or to them? She moved out of her mother’s house, went to college to study political science, had two kids, and worked for local CDCs and ministries to cut her teeth.

At the start of 2013, Juan Molina Crespo, a local power player in Clark-Fulton, asked her to join a planning team for a developmental project supported by the Hispanic Alliance (HA). She also became president of NEOHCED and began to meet others like her who were energized by prospects of not just revitalizing the neighborhood, but owning its future.

Sure, there were already talks of neighborhood revitalization, but, as Contreras notes, “the Latino community was not being invited to the table." As she became executive director of NEOHCED later that year, Contreras began to see others like her energized by prospects of not just renovating the neighborhood—but owning its future.

“The question early on was, ‘Should a CDC lead the work, or should the councilperson lead the work?’” she says. “And our response was, 'Well, no.' We all thought the community should lead the work.”

Painting the picture

As legend goes, it all started with a drawing. Those who saw it at the time say it was an homage to Spanish colonial architecture, a market one could find in Barcelona, Spain, or maybe certain parts of Mexico City. For years, it’s been said that artist Angél Guzman intended it to be the first instance of what he called, in English, the "Hispanic Village."

“It stayed in his office for years,” says Richard Levitz, an entrepreneur who worked alongside Guzman in the 1990s. “It was really just thought as one building. Never did he think, ‘Oh, let’s create this whole district.’”

Guzman, who died at 58 in 2008, was seen by many of his contemporaries as the visionary behind initial attempts to recognize the Latin identity of Clark-Fulton. He spearheaded an eight-person dream team of thinkers, politicians, and designers—Levitz, included—who conducted a feasibility study funded by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The inquiries seemed lofty by today’s measures: Would City Hall back a multimillion dollar renovation project for Hispanics? Could we even get out-of-state funding for such a project?

The Chamber lobbied in 15 Cleveland Wards, met with councilpeople, and even traveled regularly to speak with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

“But we could never, ever gain enough traction,” says Joe Lopez, the founder of Artessa Inc.

Lopez is a Colombian-American architect originally from Brooklyn, New York. A member of the local Chamber, Lopez says that political friction and a lack of solid leadership stymied Guzman’s cohort from ever breaking ground.

Lopez recalls the struggle plummeting deeper: citywide lawsuits due to racial discrimination, underrepresentation, and the occasional boardroom fight among Chamber members. Throw in a lack of funding, and Lopez says the failed history is a given.

“Let’s just say you can’t put two alphas in the same room and expect progress,” he says. “The recipe wasn’t there. Guzman couldn’t pull it together. There was always pushback: ‘Why should we fund you?’”

In the spring of 2013, something clicked. Contreras became executive director of NEOHCED just as the CDC MetroWest was formed, and moved adjacent to then Councilman Brian Cummins’ office.

Contreras says a meeting with Molina Crespo sparked a plausible path. If leaders of Clark-Fulton came forward, they could make the La Villa project a sure reality. An idea for an open-air market—known these days as La Placita—came about and quickly morphed into a way to actualize Guzman’s initial vision, save for the colonial facade.

Overall, Contreras witnessed, this was a tug-of-war: Puerto Rican home cuisine versus Rally’s opening on Clark, cutting hair in your garage versus brick-and-mortar barbershops, or having a Latin shopping center like Chicago’s La Villita or Miami’s Little Havana versus another Dollar General leasing space.

“It wasn’t like we were excluded on purpose in the past,” Contreras says. “It’s that we weren’t even thought of in the first place.”

Closer to home

Drive through the Clark-Fulton neighborhood today, and you could miss the signs of La Villa’s residents if you blink or drive too fast to either parallel highway.

Sure, there’s the U.S. Bank building on West 25th and Clark that sports the NEOHCED sign and a 25-foot tall mural touting the “International Village.” There’s the freshly-done mi barrio mural across the street—a dream-like portrait of La Villa’s potential—followed by a series of postcard-sized churches, Puerto Rican social clubs, salons, and the Old San Juan Jewelers.

Pockmarked around the neighborhood are boarded up brownstones, overgrown grass lots and the Family Dollar. Without a big sign or a landmark, the average Clevelander might ask, “What La Villa Hispana?”

A one-minute walk down from NEOHCED on Clark Avenue is Maria’s Hair Creations. Owner Maria Rivera, an immigrant from Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, relocated to Cleveland after marrying her husband.She immediately decided to open a salon in Clark-Fulton after noticing there was only one other Spanish barber, the Barbero Hispano. She’s been in her spot on Clark since 1988.

But something happened just as Contreras and Crespo began brainstorming ideas for neighborhood revitalization. Rivera noticed an uptick in nearby crime. She installed new lights, cameras, and locks on her salon’s door. (Indeed, most shops on Clark require you to ring a doorbell to enter.) She moved her home residence to Parma, upset at the slow response from the Cleveland Police.

In late April, the Iglesia del Salvador Church next door to Rivera’s shop was broken into and had its PA system stolen. Three men were shot at the Club Alma Yaucana down the street, also in April. A tension formed between maintaining local pride and keeping people safe.

Rivera remains committed to keeping her business in the neighborhood. “I’m still here eight hours a day,” she says, in a mixture of English and Spanish. Although Rivera regularly champions the promise of La Villa, she says it needs more safety measures to level up: “First, we need more lights on the streets. We need people to feel safer.”

It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem: Will more development on West 25th and Clark—streetlamps, new renters, and foot traffic—give La Villa the semblance of safety that it needs, or vice versa? “Safety and security is no different here than Ohio City or Tremont,” says Contreras. “There’s not any other difference between safety in our neighborhood and theirs.”

But Rivera believes the one thing that’s preventing many Latin residents from being active in the first place is a concern for safety “When something bad happens here, no one wants to return — por el miedo,” she says. “Unless things change. Cosas cambian.”

It’s the same concern Rivera’s daughter, Lisa Marie Berry, has. Berry is a 28-year-old CPR instructor who plans to one day move back. Like many her age, she is college-educated, energized by recent development, and wants to be a part of La Villa. “My heart is here and so is my family,” she says. “I used to know Clark, and it was sad to see everything go downhill.”

For the recently married Berry, a newer, safer La Villa could create a chain reaction for younger people who want to return to Clark-Fulton.

“For me, it’s all about being closer to home,” she says. “On some days, I swear you’d think you’re in Puerto Rico.”

This article is part of our On the Ground - La Villa Hispana community reporting project in partnership with Dollar BankHispanic Business CenterEsperanza Inc.Greater Cleveland PartnershipCleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea

About the Author: Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.