Friday, February 25, 2005

Something Had to Be Done, So She Did It

Below is a passage written by Beachland Ballroom co-founder Cindy Barber. It appeared last November in the PD's excellent "Voices in the Arts" Sunday series under the headline "Culture Can Be a Catalyst for Neighborhoods Too."

'When my partner, Mark Leddy, and I opened the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern in 2000, the goal was to kick-start the redevelopment in my neighborhood, a sometimes forgotten section of Cleveland bordering Lake Erie between Bratenahl and Euclid, north of Interstate 90. A landscape-architect friend had turned me on to North Collinwood's affordable lake-access living in the mid-1980s, and I was hooked. Even though the area already had lost much of its older ethnic population, the local culture still centered around Friday-night fish fries, bowling and corner bars. But the dominant Slovenian, Croatian and Lithuanian populations eventually shrank to the point that many of the businesses also disappeared. By the late '90s, abandoned streets were taken over at night by young drug dealers and prostitutes.

Something had to be done.

Our thinking was to create a destination location to bring people into the neighborhood at night, so we took over the historic Croatian Liberty Home in the rundown Waterloo business district and turned its warm-sounding ballroom into a national-level music concert club. A few blocks away, a small collective of other area residents was opening the Grovewood Tavern & Wine Bar in an old neighborhood corner bar. Both ventures have gotten rave reviews from a wide region. Today, after 4½ years, the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern is a local institution with a national reputation. In some ways, the acclaim for the venue has far surpassed the original goal to help stabilize the neighborhood. Until recently, we felt like the lone pioneers, with a few exceptions. Some of the old North Collinwood is still here. Down the street, the Slovenian Home hangs on and still puts on a great Friday fish fry. There's a couple of sausage shops and Fanny's home-style Slovenian restaurant that all consistently bring old neighborhood residents back to the 'hood. Our fellow neighborhood activist Sarah Gyorki has managed to keep open her WhatNot Coffeeshop down the street, and some of the bands that play the Beachland have a practice space nearby. But there have been more empty storefronts and buildings for sale than plans and activity.

Yet, there are signs that things might be starting to take off.'

More than once, I've described here how inspiring it is to know and watch Cindy. For years, she was a stalwart alternative weekly editor at the Free Times, fearlessly and tirelessly giving voice to average citizens during a difficult moment in Cleveland history, when the twin power poles of City Hall (under Mike White) and 1801 Superior Avenue (the PD under Alex Machaskee, before Doug Clifton arrived to moderate his worst excesses) were being run by bullies intent on ruthlessly quashing dissent. In working with literally hundreds of editors in 20-plus years, I can't say I've ever known anyone who was better at both the technical and the human sides of the business. When her job got eliminated due to the Village Voice chain buying the paper, she didn't feel sorry for herself and go off in a corner to sulk, as many might have done. Instead, she simply found another focus for her prodigious community-building (and -saving) energies, and in her own neighborhood of North Collinwood. In this post from November '03, I wrote about the medical benefit concert she hosted at the Beachland for our drummer/photographer friend Jim Jones, late of Pere Ubu (just this week, Jim sent along a note about how much he appreciated the effort, and how the money raised served as a crucial bridge until he could get his hospital bills covered by disability insurance). And in this Free Times piece last year, I mentioned Cindy as among Cleveland's leading progressive activists who are helping to change this town, not with hype and glitz and BS, but with her own inspiring and transformative neighborhood sweat equity.

We need to support these people and their dreams, folks. That's why I plan to be on hand at Cindy's joyous converted Croatian dance hall next weekend to help her mark her fifth anniversary in business. I hope you'll be there too. But don't limit yourself to attendance then. Stop back as often as you can. And while you're at it, when you get there, why not ask for Cindy to congratulate her in person. And as long as you have her attention, you might ask for some ideas of how you too might do your bit to help turn things around where you live. I know she'll have a good idea for you. Maybe even five or six.


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