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 Joe Baur examines Slavic Village.
Epicenter of Despair
Many consider the epicenter of the national foreclosure crisis to be just a few miles south of downtown Cleveland, in Slavic Village. This hub of immigrant activity had already been victim to suburban sprawl, racial tensions and transportation policies that hurry commuters out of the city.
A drive down I-77 proves just that. Glimpsing Broadway Avenue from the highway, drivers catch sight of the deteriorated 19th and early-20th century homes built by Czechs, Poles and other Eastern Europeans, many of which have long been boarded up. The foreclosure crisis only hastened the process.
Few are aware of what remains. Slavic Village isn’t Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway or even North Collinwood. Most Clevelanders would struggle to name a single business located within this inner-city neighborhood.
But there’s reason to believe that Slavic Village is the next comeback story in the anthology of comeback stories that is Cleveland.
Mark Fox Morgan, a 39-year old artist from Sacramento, moved to Slavic Village last summer with his fiancé, Suzie Perez, without ever having stepped foot in Ohio.
"There was a King Tut exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco," Morgan recalls. "I proposed to her from King Tut’s crown saying, 'Would you like to come with me to Cleveland?’"
Morgan became interested in the neighborhood after catching Cleveland Councilman Tony Brancatelli on PBS shortly after the housing collapse discussing the troubles in Slavic Village. "We were averaging two foreclosures a day," recalls Brancatelli, who was born and raised here to immigrant parents from Poland and Italy.
Unlike all those who have left, Morgan was drawn to the challenge of rebuilding. "I chose Cleveland specifically because it was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis," he says, displaying the sort of gritty, blue-collar work ethic that originally built his new neighborhood.
Morgan is no masochist. Life in Cleveland has its perks, he says. "It’s centrally located to Chicago, New York City and has an unbelievable amount of resources for an artist." But more than anything, it was the affordable cost of living that appealed to Morgan, who was working two jobs on the West Coast just to get by.
After his fiancé said "yes," Morgan wasted little time in purchasing property in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the City of Cleveland condemned the two houses on his new lot before he even made it out of California. That’s when he contacted Councilman Brancatelli.
"The first time I spoke to Mark I thought he was just another one of those yahoos who bought real estate online," explains Brancatelli. "Mark and Suzie proved to be true urban pioneers who lived by their commitment and made a significant investment of not just money, but of their time and personal investments. I found myself absolutely engaged with their enthusiasm and energy to make a difference in a city they knew little of at the time."
Reality and Optimism
By and large, Morgan has been thrilled with his risky cross-country adventure. But he'd be lying if he said that life in Slavic Village has been complete and utter Utopia.
Property crimes continue to be a problem, admits Marie Kittredge, Executive Director of Slavic Village Development. She estimates that 500 single and multi-family housing structures need to be torn down in the neighborhood.
"Fortunately, at the local, state and national level, Cleveland area politicians and other leaders have been working hard to raise additional demolition funds for Cleveland and the County," she says. "Through their efforts, Cleveland should see several million dollars in additional demolition funding in the next several months."
In the meantime, vandals continue to wreak havoc on the 2,000 units that are slated for demolition in Slavic Village and throughout Cleveland. Morgan describes instances when he’s watched someone strip an abandoned home, hop on their bike and ride home around the corner. "It’s a defeatist attitude," he says. "They don’t understand they’re devaluing the neighborhood."
Nonetheless, Morgan loves the diversity of Slavic Village and says a majority of his neighbors have been nothing but kind to him. He’s thankful for his part-time job at the Cleveland Public Library’s Kinsman branch, where his co-workers are "very supportive."
Despite some obstacles, Morgan continues to beam with optimism. Slavic Village’s low cost of living provides him with ample time in the art studio, and working on his two properties has become a labor of love. He relishes hopping the bus downtown with his fiancé for a ballgame, calling it a luxury compared to his cash-strapped lifestyle back in the Golden State.
And then there are the natural wonders that come with living in the Midwest.
"I love snow and fireflies," he says. "I had never seen fireflies before."
Turning a Corner
While a short stroll down the block might make Slavic Village’s outlook seem bleak, a bike ride encompassing the entire neighborhood provides a broader, more promising snapshot.
Appealing ethnic restaurants like Red Chimney and Seven Roses continue to attract foodies to the area. An Olympic-style velodrome, the only of its kind in the region, recently debuted not far from Slavic Village’s historic downtown, where many neoclassical-style buildings still stand. Anyone with a little imagination can see a promising future.
But Kittredge goes a step further than imagination and hope, saying that the neighborhood already has turned a corner.
"One big vision coming to fruition in September is the construction of our new Trailside Homes on the Morgana Bike Trail," says Kittredge, referring to new single-family homes with direct access to the popular Morgana Run Trail. "I’m looking forward to the next five years when our excess housing has been torn down, and when the Trailside project of 90-plus homes will be complete."
But it’s not just about the vision: People are coming out to see the transformation first-hand.
"At the GardenWalk, over 150 people strolled through the 18-plus Slavic Village gardens on the tour, including people from the far corners of the region, like Hudson, Strongsville and Chardon," boasts Kittredge. "They were impressed with the energy and vibrancy of our neighborhood."
"Exactly What We Are"
While it’s tempting to engage in a branding campaign, Kittredge maintains a more simplistic and honest approach to promoting life in Slavic Village.
"We don’t want to be another Tremont, or another Ohio City or Detroit-Shoreway," she explains. "We want to be exactly what we are -- another fun, interesting Cleveland neighborhood with a distinctive urban character. A neighborhood that people enjoy visiting and where our residents can live really well affordably."
*Learn more about the neighborhood when it celebrates Slavic Village: Then and Now on Thursday, August 23rd, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Washington Park Golf Center (3841 Washington Park Blvd.).
Photos Bob Perkoski