Posted on November 29, 2004

Slavic Village Struggles As It Changes From Ethnic Enclave To Urban Mix

Robert L. Smith and Dave Davis, Plain Dealer (Cleveland), Nov. 28

The voices of a practicing choir drift from Sacred Heart of Jesus Church on a cool autumn night, serenading a group of neighbors as they leave the church parking lot on Krakow Avenue and turn purposefully up East 71st Street.

As the Polish voices fade, the 14 men, women and children encounter another, harsher tune.

Three teenagers — two black, one white — pass on the other side of the street. One pedals a bicycle pulling a wagon with a boom box. Suddenly, a deafening hip-hop beat shatters the quiet — Ba-BOOM! Ba-BOOM! Ba- BOOM!

One of the kids puts a lighter to an empty box and drops it burning into the street. The boys laugh as a father leading the Neighborhood Safety Walk crosses the street and stamps out the flames.

“We’re not used to things like this,” Ellen Jenulis, one of the walkers, says softly. “They happen a lot now.”

Jenulis, 62, has lived her entire life in the southeast Cleveland neighborhood known as Slavic Village. For most of that time, such disrespectful youths were unimaginable. So were slumlords, drug dealers and brazen daylight burglaries, all recent plagues.

She’s not moving. Not yet.

“Instead of standing there and letting it happen, we’ve decided to fight back,” she says.

The fabric of her community is tearing, and she’s part of a small army fighting to hold it together. The whole city has a stake in her battle.

Cleveland’s slide into poverty has been long and relentless, greased by middle-class flight to the suburbs.

But the city’s leap to the top of the heap — the poorest big city in America last year — sprang from more-sudden developments.

In recent years, poverty spilled into some of the few stable neighborhoods Cleveland has left, bringing its social ills and scaring off homeowners. When poor renters and absentee landlords replace them, the whole city is poorer.

The pattern is decades-old, but it quickened recently in working- class neighborhoods like Collinwood, Buckeye-Shaker and Detroit-Shoreway. The changes may be most dramatic in Slavic Village, where the old world meets the new and where forces of decline and renaissance swirl toward an unknown finish.

The storied neighborhood, long a working-class ethnic enclave, remains vibrant and uniquely Cleveland. Children walk to one of four Catholic schools. Their parents staff a militia of block clubs. And merchants run the kind of old-world butcher shops that would make a neighborhood of Warsaw proud.

Meanwhile, handsome new townhouses are rising on the narrow streets, and a Tremont- like café scene is emerging. Integration is not only happening, but often working, encouraged by civic leaders who see black and Latino homeowners as essential to the neighborhood’s future.

Still, poverty has risen sharply in recent years, and crime and delinquency with it. Many Slavic Village homeowners are asking: Have middle-class standards collapsed? Do I stay or leave?

Welcome to our own ‘Little Warsaw’

Step into Krusinski’s Finest Meat Products at East 63rd Street and Heisley Avenue and you will enter another, more aromatic world. Sausages hang in banana-like bunches. Kielbasa, kiszka, hurka. All made right here.

Back in a stainless-steel beehive of a kitchen, women in hairnets talk in Polish as they hand-roll pierogies.

The shop stands at the edge of a century-old historic district called Warszawa (“var-SHAV-ah”), Little Warsaw, one of the last Polish enclaves in America.

There is no official map of Slavic Village, but man-made boundaries shape a quasi-triangle bounded by Broadway, Interstate 77 and the southern city limits. About 12,000 people live in its 60 blocks.

Fleet Avenue merchants coined the neighborhood nickname in 1978. It still fits. The old-time Czech families have long since moved out, but in the 2000 census, nearly 50 percent of residents reported a Slavic ancestry, mostly Polish.

And the immigrants still come. One-fifth of the students at St. Stanislaus School were born abroad, typically in Poland or Ukraine. In shops along Fleet Avenue, the main commercial street, it’s not unusual to meet people who speak no English at all.

But Helen Krusinski, who opened the butcher shop with her husband, John, 50 years ago, notices the changes. Her regulars once walked to the shop. Now, many drive in from the suburbs. Lately, they’ve been calling first.

“They ask if it’s safe,” she says.

Of course it’s safe, she answers. Doesn’t she still live here? But she has her complaints. And her worries.

Just up East 63rd Street, a house’s windows are covered with plywood, the scarlet letter of abandonment.

For some reason, Krusinski said, the kids aren’t going straight home from school like they used to. They walk across lawns and hang out on corners in idle, hooded groups. The new families, she says, “They just don’t get it.”

Slavic Village was one of the few city neighborhoods to attract new residents between 1990 and 2000. The problem is, most everyone new was poor.

The fact that they are also mostly black adds a racial edge to the transition.

Some blocks within sight of the bell towers of St. Stanislaus, the neighborhood’s social and spiritual skyscraper, went from all-white to 30 percent black in 10 years. The same blocks also became noticeably poorer.

Half the neighborhood is now rental property. And some of those renters are bad news.

But there are other, more promising changes in a neighborhood of contrasts.

At 3 p.m. on a sunny afternoon, girls from Central Catholic High School spill into the Fishbowl, one of two new cafés in the neighborhood. They order smoothies and iced mochas and chat with the energy of students freshly released from class.

Owner Ilona Seaman named her coffeehouse for the big front windows, which look out onto East 65th Street and the school kids sallying past, boys and girls, black and white, their Catholic school uniforms as bright as the autumn leaves.

In its previous life, the cafe was a go-go bar, and dancers writhed in a brass cage in that window. Now it’s an entrepreneur’s dream.

“I did my homework,” says Seaman, 35, who grew up in Willowick. “This may look like a sleepy little neighborhood. But there’s a lot of history, a lot of energy.”

She likes the students and they like her — proprietor of a café ideal for teenage memories.

“The coffee is awesome, and it’s just a fun place to be,” says Margaret Moser, a senior with reddish hair and a cheery smile.

She grew up walking to school in a neighborhood where everyone walks everywhere. But the 17-year-old senses her world shrinking. Her elementary school, Jesus and Mary, closed last year, she says with a frown. Her mom doesn’t like her walking alone anymore.

“It’s starting to get run-down,” she says. “Momma tells me to watch out.”

Juveniles blamed for rising crime

On a recent Thursday night, a masked gunman held up the video store at East 65th Street and Lansing Avenue, unbeknownst to well-dressed couples attending a reception at the Polish-American Cultural Center across the street.

Within an hour, overworked Cleveland police officers responded to an attempted carjacking near the same corner. It was not yet 9 p.m.

Police blame aimless juveniles for the senseless crimes, hard- edged young men for the robberies.

They say drug dealers from the nearby Central neighborhood have moved in, hoping to expand their turf.

All of this makes big John Tucholski sigh as he stands behind the bar at Karb’s Tavern, which his father long tended.

Karb’s no longer stages polka bands on Saturday nights. But the pierogi lunches draw a crowd. And regulars arrive most afternoons to shoot pool and talk, often about the changes afoot. It’s a thoughtful conversation.

“The older people are dying off, and their kids are moving to the suburbs,” says Tucholski, who played football for nearby Central Catholic, class of 1986.

Mike Lutz, a retired railroad worker, watched his block change for better and worse. Race is no guide, he says. The couple that bought the house next door, African-American and Puerto Rican, are the best neighbors he has ever had.

Lutz blames absentee landlords for the problems.

Tucholski uses a stronger term.

“Slumlords,” he says. “They’ll rent to anyone who pays.”

Rental housing is a sensitive issue in Slavic Village. Homeowners blame transient renters for letting the lawn go to weeds and the kids to run wild. But neighborhood leaders say that criticism is often unfair.

Slavic Village has always been a “step-up neighborhood” teeming with renters, says Edward Rybka, the ward’s 18-year councilman. What has changed is the rental market. Federal subsidies and market forces have combined to create a red hot subsidized housing market.

Many of the new renters arrive with vouchers from the federal Housing Choice Program, better known as Section 8. Vouchers worth $700 may not rent much in West Park. But in Slavic Village, where $400 monthly rents are common, they offer riches.

Suddenly, houses that could attract families are bought up by investors, Rybka complains.

Too often, the rent money goes to landlords in the suburbs and the house deteriorates. Some landlords have leased houses into decay, then walked away. Rare is the block without a boarded-up eyesore haunting the street.

Landlords who don’t care about the property don’t put much thought into tenants either.

Residents of East 63rd Street were astonished last spring when police swooped down on a house and took out the occupants in handcuffs. They also seized cocaine, marijuana, a 12-gauge shotgun and a .357-caliber Magnum revolver.

Carol Black, co-founder of the East 63rd Street Block Club, wants the city to crack down on out-of-state landlords, but Rybka says the ethnic communities are not blameless.

“Most of the landlords I’m chasing have an s-k-i at the end of their name,” he says. “I tell them, Hey, you wouldn’t put up with this next door to you in Middleburg Heights.’ “

Often they tell him, “Rent’s on time, counselor.”

Owners vs. renters, whites vs. blacks

Tension between renters and homeowners imperils integration. The federal rent vouchers go mostly to poor, single-parent families. In Slavic Village, they are also mostly black.

Lisa Polk feels she’s treated as guilty by association. She’s new and she’s black.

Polk, a purchasing agent, bought her house on East 63rd Street four years ago. She moved from the Union-Miles neighborhood with her 10-year-old son for a quieter, safer environment.

The neighborhood thrills her. She has grown close to her next- door neighbor, Rose, an elderly Polish woman. And she laughs, observing, “I’ve learned an appreciation for sausage and pierogies.”

But a recent block club meeting left her cold.

“I felt like everyone was struggling not to say certain words.”

Black people.

Standing in the driveway of her well-kept home, Polk voiced the same complaints as her white ethnic neighbors. Loud music. Drug boys on bicycles. Landlords “renting to whoever” and hurting her property value.

“It’s not about the color,” she says. “It’s about the people and whether or not you care.”

For her new neighborhood to work, she knows, integration must work.

“The Polish community here cares about each other. You see that,” she says. “I would like to see the black community join that community.”

Plenty are on her side. But the quest is growing anxious.

Hundreds of homeowners have left in just the last few years, and many are eyeing a move.

Zenon Domanski, a graphic artist who works from his Lansing Avenue home, is not easily pushed. It took martial law to force him to leave Poland in 1982. But crack users have moved onto the block, and teens spew profanities when he asks them to lower their music.

“I can move, and probably I will do that,” he says, as a hip- hop beat rattles his windows at 4 p.m. “But tell me, how many times do you have to move out in your life? Sometimes . . . you say, No, I’m not going. You go.’ “

The safety walks started in July on Fleet Avenue. The idea was to get good neighbors out onto the streets, meeting and talking, and to give the troublemakers something to think about.

People embraced them. The walks spread to other parts of the neighborhood, became twice- weekly and recently drew Ellen Jenulis from her home on Claasen Avenue.

“The block clubs seem to give every one of us a little bit of hope,” she says.

There are other rays of hope, and big shoulders to lean on.

The neighborhood’s major institutions, like Third Federal Savings & Loan and Slavic Village Development, are investing in new housing and businesses. Civic leaders hope to court a new generation of families by promoting the neighborhood’s strengths: good schools, affordable homes, dedicated residents.

No one envisions a white ethnic future.

“What we want in this neighborhood are homeowners who want to raise their families here,” says the Rev. Michael Surufka, the 46-year-old pastor of St. Stanislaus. “Race doesn’t matter.”

The brown-robed Franciscan, known in the neighborhood as Father Mike, says the future of Slavic Village and his 113-year-old church are inseparable. So he counts every new child at St. Stanislaus School and says a prayer of thanks when people like Faye Benton arrive.

Benton, a single mother of two, wanted to move her mother and two children from East Cleveland to a better neighborhood with better schools. So she tapped her 401(k) plan, drained her savings and bought a house in Warszawa.

But she did not celebrate until last month, when Victor, her 10-year-old, entered the fifth grade at St. Stanislaus.

People like Father Mike hear an echo, the voices of immigrant parents long ago, when Faye Benton smiles triumphantly and says, “I used every means I could to get here.”