On a weekend morning at the Beachland Tavern, sunshine streams into the usually dim concert venue. Tables and chairs have popped up where last night's instruments, microphones and concertgoers stood. The beer fridge still audibly hums, concert promotion posters thickly plaster the walls and the unpretentious vibe remains.
I'm perched on an aging church-basement-stackable chair in the bustling tavern turned dining room, explaining to my three young children how records work as the disc jockey queues up fun, eclectic tunes on vinyl. I'm eating perhaps the best bacon, egg and cheese biscuit sandwich I've ever had.
This is, decidedly, not a chain restaurant in the suburbs. This is Collinwood, the artsy, authentic East Side Cleveland neighborhood that some — the uninitiated? — still regard as sketchy.
Collinwood, like the city as a whole, has lost almost half of its population over the last 60 years or so. While Cleveland's core city population has declined, our regional population has scattered as the suburbs and their far-flung beyond have grown.
For some suburban folks, the city has become drive-by territory — a place to get through quickly and uneventfully, preferably with locked doors. The other day at a bagel shop in Beachwood, a well-dressed older woman in line with me admired my children, pulled out wallet photos of her Rocky River grandkids and casually volunteered that she drives "the long way" to visit them because she's "not an inner-city kind of person."
Some Cleveland neighborhoods are bucking that prejudice. On the near West Side, people are flowing into Ohio City, Tremont and Detroit Shoreway, where the streets are vibrant on weekend evenings.
Collinwood is not quite there yet. Despite its rich history, core group of excellent specialty businesses, and close-knit and racially integrated community, its human energy does not adequately fill the streets. But with millions of dollars recently invested in bringing art and artists to the neighborhood, plus a new brewery and restaurant slated to hit Waterloo Road this fall, it's poised to tip even more toward a "destination."
In the past, urban neighborhoods didn't have to be destinations to prosper. Collinwood's past was thriving but insular. Many residents worked and shopped here.
"Either you worked at the rail yard or you owned and operated one of the businesses on Waterloo or on [East] 185th," says Melanie Hershberger, owner of the independent record store Music Saves, relating the area's oral history from decades past. Waterloo Road, where her shop and the Beachland are located, "was barbershops and bars and markets and all the necessities," she says, "and people lived in the neighborhood behind."
Before shopping malls and national chains, before freeways like Interstate 90, which now bisects Collinwood, mixed-use development and shopping local were the norm, not trendy catchphrases. Now, with fewer people living in Cleveland neighborhoods, anchor businesses must draw patrons from a broader geographic base to thrive. That means suburbanites must fill the gap.
Specialty businesses are key to urban revitalization. Grocery stores and other neighborhood-centric shops are also critical, but only one-of-a-kind magnets can draw enough traffic from near and far to make dwindling areas bustling and vibrant. Collinwood has these magnets.
On any given evening at the Grovewood Tavern & Wine Bar, you can drink fine wine or craft beer and eat a locally sourced meal that would make a downtown celebrity chef proud. You'll also listen to a real jukebox under a low, wood-beamed ceiling festooned year-round with tiny white Christmas lights — in a true neighborhood pub next to folks from all walks of Cleveland life. At Music Saves, you can locate hard-to-find CDs and vinyl — and Vinyl, the store's resident cat — and catch an in-store performance or autograph session from an under-the-radar artist.
At the R&D Sausage Co. across from the Beachland on Waterloo, Joe Zuzak, a Croatian immigrant, has run his shop for 30 years. Customers — many of Slovenian, Croatian or other international origin — come from all over to buy his smoked and fresh meats and, some days, homemade strudels. Everything comes with Zuzak's free, fast-flying, heavily accented advice on how to cook it. (The sausage and smoked pork shoulder I took home to Shaker Heights were both surpassingly delicious, despite my almost-certain failure to match Zuzak's Old World cooking technique.)
Zuzak argues with those who call Collinwood a bad neighborhood. "People talking that all the time, but that's not true," he says. Hershberger, of Music Saves, thinks the culprit could be underlying, sometimes unconscious, racial prejudices.
"People's perception of a bad neighborhood is just perception. It isn't based in fact," she says.
"Unfortunately, I think it's a thing that we've learned culturally, that's ingrained in a lot of the white people in our country, that if there are a lot of African-American people living in a community, it's a bad neighborhood."
In fact, Collinwood's crime rates are among the lowest in the city. But does it really matter? If you're visiting a quality business at a reasonable time of day or evening and using your city sense, it shouldn't be an issue. Most people are decent, everywhere.
The tougher question is: Do we suburbanites require our businesses, churches and streets to be populated by people who look a lot like us? For too many, the answer is yes, and the city — or maybe everything but the sports stadiums and a few other select places that meet their comfort level — is ignored.
This is the segregation of urban avoidance. It divides our region into a privileged "us" and a neglected "them" who have to be fixed or cleaned up before they're suitable for the rest of us. A true extension of community to all our residents — our fellow Clevelanders — means we have to be present, even if it feels unfamiliar or uncomfortable at first.
Tucked into our neighborhoods are gems worth the visit. That might be a historic ethnic church hosting the Cleveland Mass Mob, a movement that converges on a different urban Catholic church each month. Maybe it's stick-to-your-ribs soul food at Angie's Soul Cafe in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood or Zanzibar Soul Fusion on Shaker Square.
You might participate in a race in the city, such as the Glenville Heritage 5k Run and 1 Mile Walk Aug. 9 or the NEOCycle festival's bicycle races and rides Sept. 26 to 28. Hipster types, and maybe you, are flocking to the bustling Cleveland Flea, a monthly artisan and food market that seeks to move among neighborhoods in need of a boost.
Neighborhoods need people. Even — no, especially — in the most struggling areas of the city, these neighborhoods and their anchors need visitors: their good neighbors from the suburbs.