A version of this article originally appeared on Freshwater Cleveland
W. 25th St. in Ohio City is changing. Now, you got sidewalk seating, finer food, and a microbrew cluster that can rival any in the country. Back in the 80’s it was harder, and not levitated with beautification; rather, it was a place of necessity. For instance, I got eye exams there. My mom worked at an auto part store there. My dad did security as an off-duty cop there. But after long there started to be less “there” there. Cleveland’s population decline into the 1990’s took its small businesses with it. W. 25th St. was dying. So was its necessity.
“Man, I remember how empty it was,” said Mike Kaplan, the co-owner of a glass-blowing studio he opened in 1999 called the Glass Bubble Project on W. 25th and Bridge. “There was nothing. People were always getting robbed right here,” he’d go on, pointing to a spot not far from his place.
Kaplan was right. The area struggled with disinvestment and its effects. Beyond crime, another result was the desperation to fill empty storefronts, regardless if a particular business did more harm than good. Take the infamous —and now defunct—Club Moda. Its crime-laden presence made it harder for existing businesses to hang on, or to entice new small business to move in.
Said Alex Gleason, owner of the Old Angle Tavern, which opened in 2003, “On Sunday nights we would traditionally duck behind the bar dodging bullets [from Moda]. It was crazy”.
Things are a bit different now, because with the newer restaurants, microbreweries, and shops—combined with existing businesses ranging from a Lebanese deli, to a barber college, to an active dollar store, to one of the largest urban farms in the country—the area fills a new need: that of a place in the city where Clevelanders can be a community, one where races, classes, and “low” and “high” end shops legitimately mix.
Asked about the changes over the ten-plus years, Kaplan—who first occupied space in the area as part of “a hardcore art co-op scene”—spoke matter-of-factly, neither caught up in resenting nor revering the area’s evolution: “It’s overwhelmingly busy. It’s overwhelming—the change. I hate to say I don’t like it. I like it—it happened.”
What exactly is happening on W. 25th? Well, the short answer is that it is revitalizing, and the area is doing so by growing from its one longstanding asset. That asset is the West Side Market, which is a distinguishing jewel on the stubbornly-resilient, if tarnished, crown of Cleveland. From a recent article in the Smithsonian describing how the existence of the West Side Market served as a catalyzing force for W. 25th, the author writes:
While brand strategists obsess over how to communicate “authenticity,” public markets are inherently one of the most authentic expressions of a place, and therefore an ideal symbol for a city to use when representing itself to the world…
…There are a number of good examples of market cities in the U.S., but one of the best is Cleveland, where the century-old West Side Market has become a key engine in the city’s revitalization…[T]he West Side Market is now just one [albeit sizeable] node in a buzzing network of food-related endeavors—restaurants, farmers’ markets, urban farms—which are assembling into a whole new identity for the “Rust Belt” city.
In other words, you take a special place in Cleveland and carve down into the identity of that place, or its “genius loci”, which in this case is culture, food, and a historical place of commerce. And then you celebrate this by emphasizing the genuinely great architecture and walkability of the area, soon then multiplying the investment to create a cluster of activity until voila: a seed of Cleveland living amidst the talk of Cleveland dying.
In all, it’s a positive time in the evolution of the street, as it is a success that still reeks of Cleveland—in its odors and sights, and in the conversations overheard at the bus stop, the bank, or the bar. In folks like Kaplan and Gleason. I just hope success doesn’t sanitize the strip, taking the integrity and diversity with it.
You see, urban areas that have been revitalized tend to lose their distinctiveness after a while. This is rapidly occurring in places like New York City and Portland. Jane Jacobs, the great city thinker, called this the “self-destruction of diversity”. Put simply, an area becomes intriguing and places fill up space. It becomes even more attractive until rents begin “crowding out and overwhelming less profitable forms of use”. Eventually, many of the local places—the Lebanese deli and Glass Bubble Projects of the world—can’t compete with the chains and other commercial spots that want in, and so the real feel of neighborhood gives way to a soulless corporate aesthetic that neutralizes why the area was attractive in the first place.
In fact this increasingly popping into minds of the local business owners. They don’t want chains. They don’t want “cheese”. The only question is whether it can be stopped. And if so, how? Gleason for one thinks it comes down to the fact that the local business community is about individual owners that get along with each other via a collective vision. He thinks local business organizing—along with help from city council and the likes of Ohio City Inc.—can effectively guide long-term planning.
Said Gleason, “I am all for the multiplier effect as long as it is a good multiplier. All the owners feel that way. We want W. 25th St. to be kept as authentic to Cleveland as possible. We have to. That integrity is the reason we exist [in business]. It’s why people are coming.”
Interestingly enough, Gleason feels this goes beyond buzzwords tied to some naïve trumpeting of collectivity. Rather, it’s driven by the character and working class backgrounds of the people that have a large voice in the decisions. “Most of the owners are from the restaurant business. We spent our life getting our hands dirty. I grew up here. Others have pasts here, and histories of busting our ass in the business. That’s Cleveland, and so there is a lot of Cleveland pride.”
Sam McNulty, no doubt one of the big players in the area’s revitalization, agrees. But he’s used to the uncertainty surrounding W. 25th St. After opening the Bier Markt in 2005, McNulty added various establishments to the street including Market Garden Brewery, which was converted from an abandoned live chicken shop. The doubt back then had less to do with how to maintain success than whether or not success can even happen.
“I kept hearing that I was just going to be cannibalizing my businesses” he’d say, meaning folks thought the area had a discreet amount of appeal that could only keep a few establishments running. But that didn’t happen. Instead, sales grew dramatically at all of his businesses once the cluster began revving.
So McNulty doubled down, just recently opening a small-batch brewery called Nano Brew Cleveland that will act as a taste-testing feeder for his Market Garden down the street. McNulty says the chorus of whether or not success can happen on W. 25th has stopped. “When we announced [our latest openings], people finally stopped commenting on the cannibalization theory and realized that growing an authentic district increased business for all.”
Of course questions remain. Specifically, can the street be kept authentic and diverse, or will the Frankenstein effects of success “eat the Cleveland” out of one of the city’s historically rich spines?
“Look, at the end of the day we live in a free market society, so of course there is a chance any kind of business can come in,” said McNulty. But he feels the cooperation between business owners, developers, and Eric Wobser—the Executive Director of Ohio City Inc.—is unprecedented in Cleveland development, with the locals often acting as feeders to the developers when a space opens up. This is exactly how the Ohio City Hostel came to fruition, in which McNulty acted as conduit between Hostel owner Mark Raymond and developer Ari Maron. Again, this speaks to a very organic, “if you need space I can get you space” redevelopment strategy that is the antithesis to global city development in which investors don’t have their ears to the rails, nor do they care for the chatter, besides.
Can the vision hold? Time will tell. In fact part of me wants to relax in the fact that we are asking this question; that is: can “success” kill a part of Cleveland? But the other part of me wants to openly opine so that solutions can be envisioned while the forces of change are still manageable.
Of course if we keep thinking long-term it can be managed. After all, the city has survived this long without exorbitantly selling its soul. Granted, there haven’t exactly been a lot of buyers, but that is slowly changing. Yet maybe there is something in the Lake Erie water that makes how we do neighborhood revitalization different. If that’s the case, this Cleveland microbrew thing could really be a “win-win”. We just can’t get drunk in our desire to be wanted.