You would be forgiven for thinking you're in Paris, London or Brussels when wandering through Shaker Heights. The trains trundling down Van Aken Boulevard and old world homes on curving streets resemble a European street scene.
That continental feeling is something that attracts international residents, community leaders believe -- especially professionals who work in and around University Circle. “They seem to find a visual welcome mat in things like light rail,” says Vicki Blank, Director of Communications and Marketing for the City of Shaker Heights.
Although Clevelanders may have engrained impressions of Shaker Heights – for instance, they may think of the ostentatious mansions on South Park Boulevard or its historic reputation as one of the nation’s wealthiest communities – it has changed in recent years. Yes, that Shaker Heights, the one with large, gracious homes set back on picture perfect lawns, the well-off "garden city," still exists.
Yet there's another Shaker Heights, too: the city of young families who move here for the diverse, high-quality public schools; of small businesses that thrive in homes and storefronts; of immigrants who shop at farmers' markets.
When asked to describe Shaker Heights today, Blank shares an anecdote about how its tight-knit block parties have changed yet stayed constant over the years: “We have over 100 block parties a year, and people bring their cultural practices with them, so now the chili cook-off turns into people sharing their ethnic foods.”
Like any inner ring suburb, Shaker Heights has taken its lumps, especially as it's battled the foreclosure crisis. The community lost three percent of its population from 2000-2010, a less precipitous drop than many neighboring communities, but still significant. Yet there are also signs of life here – old homes being rehabbed, and LaunchHouse, the auto dealership that’s now a bustling hub for startups.
Shaker today is fundamentally different from the elite city that its founders, the Van Sweringens, originally envisioned. This transformation began 60 years ago, when restrictive covenants preventing African-American families from buying homes were reexamined and the city became a model for effective integration. The next leg in Shaker's journey, Blank says, is to continue to evolve into a destination for international families, millenials and entrepreneurs.
That trend might have shocked the traditional Van Sweringens, who planned the community as a respite from the sullied, all-too-commercial world of downtown Cleveland. “Everyone knows the history of Shaker, how exclusive it was and how they didn’t want businesses [to move into the community],” Blank says with a laugh. “I think the Van Sweringens are spinning in their graves right now.”
Although Shaker's founders may have believed the days when CEOs and heads of law firms took the train to Tower City would last forever, today's civic leaders are planning for a radically different future. Whereas the city was built with almost no commercial activity, they've decided that a community with a largely-residential tax base and very few walkable commercial districts isn’t such a great thing.
In recent years, Shaker Heights has worked hard to reinvent itself as a business-friendly community. You've probably heard the promotions on public radio and in print: "There is a place where your career and your family are in the same zip code. Where the daily commute is measured in tenths of a mile, not gallons of gas. Where a business can operate at full steam without taking anything away from family dynamics. That place is Shaker Heights." But are they working?
One major sign of progress is Shaker LaunchHouse, a startup hub, accelerator, coworking space and incubator all rolled into one. Founders Dar Caldwell and Todd Goldstein carved out the space with funding from the city in 2009. Since then, they’ve provided $585,000 in investment capital, and these firms have raised $15.5 million in follow-on funding, according to the group's website.
Exhibit A is Thomas Hayes, a 26-year-old electrical engineer from Montreal who moved here for LaunchHouse’s three month accelerator program. This year, LaunchHouse leaders opted to focus on hardware instead of software (there are 300+ software accelerators in the U.S. and only nine hardware accelerators). That focus draws on Northeast Ohio’s manufacturing prowess.
Hayes and his Canadian partners have a startup, Phazon, that's developed universal-fitting wireless earbuds. You know those iPhone earbuds with cords attached to them that are always getting snagged on stuff? Yeah, those are annoying. Hayes believes he has created a better design with two snug-fitting pieces of hard plastic embedded with technology that will retail for $175.
“I’d just graduated from [Concordia] university and was living in my parents’ basement,” Hayes explains over a beer at his house on Chelton Road. He lives in a previously foreclosed home that LaunchHouse renovated in partnership with the Neighborhood Housing Services and the city. “I got a job offer and the accelerator offer in the same week. I joined the accelerator and haven’t regretted it since.”
Hayes was lured by $20,000 in startup funding, low rent and the promise of help. Since coming to Shaker, he’s developed loads of contacts and learned about financing and manufacturing his product. Phazon’s next step is to seek additional investment, and to that end, they're launching a Kickstarter campaign. It’s a big deal -- their competitors used Kickstarter to raise over $1 million in pre-sales.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without their help,” says Hayes of LaunchHouse. “You come out with more knowledge and a business-ready product.”
The thing is, now the Canadian doesn’t want to leave. When he's not working or playing beer pong with his housemates, he frequents Ohio City’s new breweries, snapping pictures of the menu at Market Garden Brewery and sending them to friends back home to make them jealous. Montreal's beer prices are often double, he says; Cleveland's cost of living and cultural scene make it a real bargain.
“Cleveland has really surprised me,” says Hayes, who is now working with LaunchHouse to get his visa extended so he can stay and build his company in Cleveland. “Why would I go back, when there’s so much to offer here?”
The New Shakerites
Hayes is part of a small but influential wave of immigrants choosing Shaker Heights. Blank doesn’t have the exact numbers to prove it yet, but she argues that there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that Shaker Heights is attracting foreigners, including the diversity of foreign languages spoken at Boulevard School (the district’s thriving International Baccalaureate curriculum is a recruitment tool) and streets filling up with educated European families.
Sybille Schomerus and her family are an example. Schomerus moved here from Germany with her husband and two sons in 2008. They chose Shaker in part because of its farmers markets, walkable streets and old world charm. When they found out that the schools were also very good, that helped to seal the deal.
“My husband is a professor at Case – he teaches pharmacology – and we knew he could ride the bike,” she says. “That first year, we managed with just one car.”
Despite trepidations about moving, Schomerus soon made friends with neighbors who invited them over for dinner and babysat their kids while the furniture was delivered. Then she discovered other international families living in Shaker. Today, she heads up the International Women’s Group of Cleveland and helped create the Shaker Women’s Business Roundtable. She owns a small business, Compass Cleveland Relocation LLC, that helps international families relocate to Cleveland.
Bianca Meester, her husband and their four children, who are from the Netherlands, are another continental Shaker family. Before a job with Eaton Corporation required a relocation to Cleveland, they had lived all over the world, from Shanghai to Geneva and Dubai. At first they weren't excited (the snowy winters were a rough transition) but they’ve since warmed to the community.
“I’ve never seen more friendly, open and welcoming people than here in Shaker Heights," says Meester, who chose Shaker in part because of the IB curriculum.
Simply Delicious Pies
Business growth in Shaker Heights has so far been relatively modest, but that's something the massive Van Aken project will hopefully change, Blank says. Yet many home-based and small businesses have popped up in Shaker in recent years due to the ease of working from home and the shop-local trend.
“We looked all over different parts of the city, and we really liked how supportive residents of Shaker Heights are of local businesses,” says Brittany Reeves of Simply Delicious Pies. She and her sister, Beth Kaboth, run their business out of a Lee Road storefront. “They go out of their way to support local businesses. We felt like this community really fosters a strong environment for entrepreneurs.”
The sisters have been able to establish a successful business selling homemade sweet and savory pies. Customers will deliberately drive to Simply Delicious after a grocery run to Heinen’s to pick one up -- their biggest seller is chicken pot pie.
Pierre van Der Westhuizen
South African native Pierre van Der Westhuizen chose Shaker Heights as the location for the offices of the Cleveland International Piano Competition, an organization he's led since 2011. The competition "really provides the gold standard in terms of what people aspire to in piano playing," he explains of its significance. "We’re one of a few organizations in town that are truly world class. There are 3,500 music competitions in world and counting; we’re one of the top 5 piano competitions.”
The Shaker resident, whose office is in Tower East at Chagrin and Warrensville, loves his five minute commute and is excited about the new, walkable commercial center being built at Van Aken. He's already dreaming of crossing the street for lunch or even organizing free summertime concerts right on the plaza. “That’s what drew me here. It will be so cool to have a pedestrian area with shops and restaurants."