The Island

You can’t move to Tremont without hearing people buzz about gentrification. But our writer discovers that the more her neighborhood changes, the more it stays the same.

My neighborhood is quiet on this Wednesday evening. A couple guys, or boys, really — they can’t be more than 20 or 21 — are passing time, talking and resting their arms on an old car’s roof at the neighborhood mechanic’s station. An older man, slowly applying fire-engine red paint to the bricks of a house, nods a brief, shy hello as I walk to the corner store. A young couple parks their minivan and heads for the Thai restaurant. Diners around a table at trendy Fahrenheit make silent conversation as I sneak a peek through the glass at their food.

I think this is a good neighborhood, a strong neighborhood. But sometimes, as I walk to yoga or stop for a drink at another Tremont bar populated by a lot of people who look like me, I wonder if the neighborhood has a problem and if I’m part of it.

I moved into this island community a year ago. (Three freeways surround and isolate it, so it can be mighty confusing to find on your first try.) It was almost 20 years after arts writer Amy Bracken Sparks wrote about local artists discovering “the raw streets of Tremont,” 10 years after Plain Dealer freelancer Shari Sweeney called Tremont “a strange place, a neighborhood on the cusp,” and three years after anti-gentrification rallies protesting Tremont’s changes, especially the demolition of the Valley View projects.

I think I missed all the hubbub. Because on this breezy evening, Tremont is so quiet. It’s been quiet ever since I moved in.
When I arrived, after a stint in a renovated condo in Ohio City, I exhaled. My Tremont apartment is in a big house with overgrown foliage shading a tiny courtyard. Ivy creeps across the walls and power lines, forming a tiny bridge to my neighbor’s house. Tremont feels safe; it feels like a community. The first night I came home to my place in Ohio City, a bum was peeing in my doorway. My first night in Tremont, my neighbor let me use his oven because my gas hadn’t been turned on.

But I know that people worry about gentrification. Brick-and-mortar evidence of it lies just two streets away from me: upscale townhomes lining West Seventh Street and cascading down the hill into the Flats. These rowhouses square off against the Tremont traditionals, old homes with character, slowly added onto and edited over the years.

In places like Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., new townhouses would be the harbingers of gentrification’s downside, a sign that longtime residents and their old-school way of life would soon be nudged out. The artists would come, then the young professionals looking for a cheap, trendy place to name-drop at the bar. Momentum would drive more revitalization, rents would spike, condos for sale would replace apartments for rent.

That’s why the PD story 10 years ago ended with the warning, “Once a neighborhood starts holding art walks, well, let’s just say you’d best grab a fixer-upper now.” That’s why friends tell a story about a guy I’ve met once or twice, a longtime Tremont resident. He and his family were evicted from their rundown house, which happens to sit directly across a tiny alley from the Union Gospel Press building, a tumbledown mess of a former landmark that developers claim they’re slowly turning into condos. Some friends paint it as more than a coincidence, conjuring  the specter of money-hungry landowners as the culprit. But like the legend of the Gospel Press building, which is rumored to be haunted, it’s difficult to tell what’s true in the eviction story and what’s pure ghost tale.

Here, if gentrification is happening, it’s happening slowly, like everything else in this city. The townhome residents have been settled in for a few years now. When Steelyard Commons arrived, after all the hollering and arguments, it turned out to be not such a big deal after all. The stores are mostly cheap clothing and shoe outlets that provide lower-income families a place to shop close to home. Chipotle and the IHOP don’t seem to be pulling too many diners out of the Tremont restaurant scene, and before The Home Depot arrived, we didn’t have a neighborhood hardware store.

In 2003, Cleveland State University students completed the Tremont oral history project, a compilation of dozens of stories typed out verbatim and placed on the Web. The interviews reflected a quintessential neighborhood: jumbly, chaotic and interactive, full of animals, people, languages and shops packed into a small area. It was then called the South Side.

“This was a Polish neighborhood, it was a very German neighborhood, Italian neighborhood … it was a big mixture of different ethnicities living here, back then,” said councilman Joe Santiago about his youth here in the 1970s and his grandparents’ lives here in the 1950s. While the makeup of ethnicities may be different now, his description still resonates. 

So how has Tremont changed since then? It’s become more diverse: 80 percent of Tremonters were white in 1980, 61 percent in 2000. And the era before the new wave of residents was no golden age. “In the ’70s and ’60s you had a lot of slumlords here,” says Bernard Sokolowski, owner of Sokolowski’s University Inn, in his interview. “They were burning a lot of houses down and it was really bad down here.”

Tremont’s property values have increased, according to a study by the group Social Compact, from $23,000 in 1990 to $75,000 in 2003. But compare that to Lakewood, where the average 2003 home sale price was $133,450, and Cleveland as a whole, with an average of $67,583. Tremont is becoming more expensive, but slowly, in patches and spurts, and — if anything — it’s drawing a few people back toward Cleveland’s downtown.

When I walk down my street, I see a sign that’s been there forever, heralding some new construction that no one seems to have broken ground on. The only real action is down the hill, on the former site of the Valley View projects, where Tremont Pointe is readying for its first wave of tenants. It was created through the federal government’s controversial Hope VI program, which is supposed to bring the opposite of gentrification. Rather than wipe out low-income housing and funnel in richer homeowners, it’s designed to integrate people of all income levels.
Despite the previous rallies and a little grumbling on — a popular Tremont-focused Web forum — I think Tremont Pointe is a positive step. Hopefully, it’ll fill Tremont with an even broader range of people. McCormack Baron Salazar, the organization in charge of the rebuilding, has set aside 51 of the 102 units in Phase One for public-housing-eligible families, and 17 more for people with a documented limited income. Other units will be targeted at young professionals in their 20s and 30s.

“The goal,” says Barbara Freeland, the organization’s executive vice president, “is that you don’t know the economic status of your neighbor.”
Warm days bring out two kinds of Tremont bikers: one, the young, teenage boys perched on BMXs, who are the closest thing to a whiff of danger that I ever witness on my street. Of course, they’re not dangerous at all, just kids trying out their hard, I’m-too-cool stares. The other bikers are the 20- and 30-somethings on their cruisers and 10-speeds, with hoodies, emo hair, funny glasses and lots of accessories. Just more kids on bikes.

Tremont is one of those places where people still drive slow, bike slow, chat with whoever else is out and about. On one side of me, my neighbors argue and laugh with each other in Spanish while their toddlers play in the front yard. On the other, my neighbors are young professionals who host reserved barbecues in their backyard.
Other neighbors are multigenerational families who sit on their porches, keep their eye on things and putter in their neatly kept front-yard gardens. Another neighbor is the oddball artist who runs the Manly Pad art gallery, walks his dog and helps out his neighbors in the winter.
Sundays still bring ethnic crowds to the area’s churches, and Lincoln Park still draws families of all shapes and sizes and colors. People of all kinds have been converging in Tremont for more than 100 years, living mostly in a pretty neutral peace. It’s hard to say what tomorrow will bring, but today, and yesterday, and the day before, it’s just been people living, strolling, shooting the breeze, painting their houses, going to the corner store for a gallon of milk. A neighborhood. n
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