It's another balmy Friday night on Waterloo Road, and the throng is pouring in early. The cars parked up and down the street signal a bigger show than usual at the Beachland Ballroom — and less ink and facial hair than a typical night might draw.
Today's triple bill attracts a hodge-podge of humanity: from hand-holding boomers and straitlaced twentysomethings, to preteen kids on the prowl with their parents. Some kill time just up the block, browsing the indie record store Music Saves and the vintage toys at Star Pop.
But at the center of the perpetual bustle is the Beachland's Ballroom and Tavern. Housed in a former Croatian Hall, the place is ground-zero for a community once characterized by waves of Eastern European immigrants, then by the urban decay that has rocked much of Cleveland for decades. A block away, the Slovenian Workman's Home still hosts fish fries every Friday night. Inside the Beachland, murals revel in scenes of Croatian peasants at play, endearing remnants of the building's former life.
Downstairs, in a large room filled with round tables and lined with B-movie posters, the members of Los Straitjackets are relaxing with a home-cooked meal of basil pasta made by the Beachland's house chef. The instrumental surf-rock band from Nashville, with its decades-old gimmick of dressing identically and wearing Mexican wrestling masks, is a Beachland regular — and always a considerable draw. Guitarist Eddie Angel figures they've played there 15 times in the Beachland's 11 years. He readily recalls their first date: July 14, 2000.
Upstairs in the Ballroom, the Hi-Risers have just opened the evening's festivities. Cindy Barber, the Beachland's co-founder, sports a vintage aqua dress as she jitterbugs with fans to the Rochester band's retro rock. Next door at the Tavern, a collection of veteran musicians are prepping for their first-ever gig as the Mofos. They'll be followed by two more local bands.
By the time Los Straitjackets hit the main stage, the place is full to the rafters. A cluster of little boys in wrestling masks hugs the stage to the band's right.
There's not always this much going on at the North Collinwood club, but there's always something going on. Cleveland's most prolific concert venue by a long shot, the Beachland hosts up to 17 events in a single week, from touring musicians of every stripe to local upstarts and children's shows, and from Sunday brunches to punk rock yoga on weekends.
If the Beachland is the busiest joint in town, it might also be the most beloved. When the New Pornographers played the House of Blues in April, the Vancouver band's singer, Neko Case, remarked onstage: "I like the Beachland about 8,000 times fucking more," and the crowd erupted in cheers. Just last week, on her solo tour, Case played to a sold-out Beachland Ballroom.
Before there was a Beachland, the neighborhood consisted of little more than the bombed-out remnants of a once-thriving immigrant enclave. Few would deny that the club has led a neighborhood renaissance like no other in town. But while the Beachland sits at the heart of the rebirth, its own lifeblood flows harder every day.
If you knew North Collinwood prior to the 1960s, you knew a very different place. For decades, the neighborhood in Cleveland's northeastern corner thrived as a residential hub for immigrant workers who toiled at the railyards to the immediate south or at nearby General Electric, General Motors, and the Fisher Body Plant in South Collinwood. Its main drag, Waterloo Road, was a commercial strip packed shoulder to shoulder with small businesses.
"Before I-90 was built, people would walk across the street to the railroad yard," remembers Mike Polensek, the area's councilman and a lifelong resident. "[Waterloo] was full of pool halls, boarding houses, barbershops, meat markets, bakeries, and bars. It was a little eclectic street."
But the dawn of the "Lakeland Freeway" cut off the neighborhood. Changes in racial diversity and the disappearance of once-plentiful blue-collar jobs forever altered the face of Waterloo.
Euclid Beach Amusement Park, for years a magnet for Clevelanders from all directions, closed in 1969; a blocky highrise catering to seniors rose in its place. For the next two decades, prostitutes plied their trade on nearby Lake Shore Boulevard, and local gas stations pumped more coke than fuel.
The old-school haunts — like the Rose Garden on Waterloo and the 156th Street Tavern around the corner — wobbled along on their last legs, patronized by an ever-shrinking crowd as countless families fled the increasingly gritty neighborhood.
Amid the rot, a small enclave of eccentrics kept the town's historical vibe alive into the 1980s.
"A lot of my friends were here," says Cindy Barber, recalling members from artsy bands like Pere Ubu and punks like the Pink Holes. "We were all into the ethnicity of the neighborhood and going to polka dances on Friday night and enjoying real Cleveland culture."
It was in North Collinwood that Barber bought an airy cottage on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie back in 1986. For years, she envisioned opening a kind of gathering place that could welcome the crowds back to Waterloo: a coffee shop, perhaps, or a restaurant — anything that might grow into a hub to attract artists, musicians, and active young people.
With her flyaway blonde hair and her perpetually distracted air, Barber readily admits to having a fuzzy memory of those days. But colleagues from her five-year stint as editor of the Free Times newspaper recall that she talked often about that vision for North Collinwood.
After leaving the Free Times in late 1998, Barber cast her eye around the neighborhood, checking out various buildings on nearby North Waterloo. She fell in love with the old Croatian hall, which members were looking to unload following construction of their lavish new lodge in Eastlake. Many members had retired to Florida; those who remained were hunkered down behind the boarded-up tavern doors that were intended to keep the riff-raff out.
"There used to be old Croatian guys at 6 a.m. drinking Slivovitz and talking Croatian," Barber recalls. "There was a Croatian guy sleeping on a cot in the kitchen running the bar. He'd get up off his cot and open up. Friday nights, there was a Croatian one-man band, a Croatian lounge performer. There were people going crazy here, singing Croatian songs and dancing."
There was also, Barber says, a large picture of Adolf Hitler on the wall, right where the Tavern's schedule board now hangs.
Though the clannish Croatians were eager to get out, negotiations dragged on. Banks liked Barber's business plan but inevitably would ask, "Why aren't you doing this in the Flats?" Then they would turn her away.
She reached out to friends for help and finally found a partner in Mark Leddy, a graying rocker who'd been booking a couple of shows a month at Pat's in the Flats, a nondescript workingman's bar at the edge of Tremont that improbably turned into an underground rock club on weekends. Leddy had transformed Pat's into a mecca for the nascent garage-rock scene, booking burgeoning bands like the White Stripes and the Greenhornes. Outgrowing the club's cramped confines, Leddy agreed to join Barber in Collinwood. They opened the Beachland in March of 2000.
"Booking Pat's in the Flats was a hobby," says Leddy. "I didn't know what I was getting into."
With no money but vast reserves of ambition, Leddy and Barber combined their Rolodexes: He schlepped in the garage and punk bands, she brought the Americana and alternative country acts. They toiled through endless workdays and eventually became a couple, bonding over their time together.
The Beachland's bands were falling in love too.
"It was the coolest venue I ever stepped into," says Eddie Angel of Los Straitjackets. The band has played on four continents, but calls the Beachland one of the two best venues in the world. "It had not one great jukebox, but two great jukeboxes, with records on the original label," he marvels. "The stage was perfect."
And the club's owners were perfectly accommodating. Los Straitjackets spent one Fourth of July barbecuing at Barber's home. Word spread among other bands, and soon others were doing the same. Before long, agents started calling.
Around town, meanwhile, hard times were falling on the Cleveland club scene. The Flats had all but bottomed out. Wilbert's, which had been booking blues and roots music, was displaced from its Warehouse District home and had yet to reemerge across town. The Euclid Tavern was no longer booking the hot indie bands that made it a countercultural hub in earlier years, and the Grog Shop was still confined to its cramped quarters in a seedy Coventry storefront.
That left the door wide open for the Beachland, whose main challenge early on was in learning how to deal with surprise success.
"For the first few years, it was just Mark and I," Barber recalls. "One night Mark was playing with his band, Satan's Satellites, in Youngstown, and I was here by myself. We had Man or Astro-man? booked in the Ballroom and sold 20 advance tickets. We had the Numbers Band in the Tavern. And we sold out both rooms: There were 650 people here. We ran out of beer, we ran out of change. I was calling friends to come help me."
The club was chugging along nicely in its early days. And then crisis hit.
"We were only open a year and a half when 9/11 happened," says Leddy. "We had a full fall schedule booked, hundreds of thousands in guarantees, betting you'll make hundred of thousands."
But as the nation buckled down in the wake of the terrorist strike, people stopped going to shows. Almost overnight, the Beachland found itself on the hook with its bands.
"We took on debt to survive," says Leddy. He and Barber racked up club expenses on their personal credit cards and prayed for things to change. He figures they lost at least $100,000 floating the club on their own through those days.
But no sooner had crowds started returning when another body blow struck the Beachland: the opening of the House of Blues downtown in November 2004. Eager to make a splash, the deep-pocketed new club outbid the Beachland for nearly all of its top-drawing bands. Gone overnight were bankable acts like the Cramps and Hot Tuna. The ones they did manage to keep where now commanding more money.
"The opening of the House of Blues probably cost us $100,000 in the first year and a half," says Barber. "It feels like they set out to put us out of business."
Struggling again to make ends meet, the Beachland found help from unlikely sources. Barber recalls one holiday season when they couldn't make payroll. In the mail came a Christmas card from a faithful concertgoer — along with a check for $5,000. Another fan loaned them the money to pay off the costly Tex-Mex band Los Lobos.
"We've carried debt since then and have never been able to pay it down," says Leddy. The realities of life amid Cleveland's crumbling infrastructure often don't help the cause. "In some years, if not for the sewer system going out or needing a new roof, we would have been modestly profitable. We have a building built in 1949, and stuff breaks."
While chaos ruled the Beachland books, a new groove was settling in just outside the club's doors. In 2002, a kindred spirit named Sarah Gyorki moved in down the street. A displaced local who had grown up in Cleveland Heights, Gyorki returned to Cleveland after ten years of travel. She wasn't planning to stay, but she bought and rehabbed a duplex on Waterloo, near where her parents lived. Looking around, she started to see potential. "It reminded me of the Southport Corridor," she says, naming a hip strip of boutiques, bars, and restaurants on Chicago's mid-north side.
Gyorki opened the What Not coffee shop up the street from the Beachland. In short order, it became a gathering spot for artists, poets, and musicians. Although the shop was open for only about a year, a co-op of artists formed there evolved into Arts Collinwood, the nonprofit Gyorki headed from 2004 through 2010.
Arts Collinwood had its own struggles. Launched with a $5,000 grant, it initially ran programs out of a church basement. Councilman Polensek later kicked in $25,000 in city dollars, easing the transition into space that included a former bar at the corner of Waterloo and East 156th. Now the group runs a gallery, an adjoining café, and space for art classes.
"He's not arts friendly," Gyorki says of Polensek. "He doesn't get us, but he always saw how this would benefit the community."
A turning point for Waterloo came in 2004, when the independent record store Music Saves came to town. The place quickly grew into a clubhouse for indie music fans, its walls a riot of concert posters and stickers, its bins crammed with records by the sorts of acts that play the Beachland.
The store's owners, native Clevelanders Melanie Hershberger and Kevin Neudecker, melded a passion for music with a newfound love for a promising neighborhood.
"When the Beachland opened in 2000, Kevin was still living here and went to a few shows," says Hershberger. "We kept an eye on the place. We thought if we opened a store, it should be near a venue. He brought me here one night when there was no show happening. But when we drove down the street, I thought this place is so cool." A sitdown with Leddy and Barber brought their dream to life.
The overall rebirth of Waterloo has taken shape in much the same way. In 2006, Leddy and Barber convinced Pete and Debbie Gulyas, who had recently closed their vintage boutique on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights, to form a partnership with them to open This Way Out, a record/vintage collectibles shop in the Beachland's basement.
With a door linking This Way Out to the bands' green room, the place is perfectly located for touring musicians to pick up a cheesy polyester dress or a 1950s Julie London record while waiting their turn to play.
The Gulyases' dalliance with Collinwood soon led to more: The pair bought a building of their own and opened Blue Arrow Records and Blue Arrow vintage clothing, expanding on the offerings of This Way Out.
For a time, the Arts Collinwood collective catalyzed a mini scene that included four galleries. They have come and gone, much as art galleries do in any neighborhood. But replacement businesses on Waterloo are never slow to step into the fold.
When the Beachland first landed in North Collinwood, three out of every four Waterloo storefronts sat abandoned. Today, the figure stands at closer to one in four, with additional businesses sniffing around every day.
Recent additions include Native Cleveland, which sells hometown T-shirts and other items relating to Cleveland; the vintage toy store Star Pop; Rebel City Tattoos; the Head Shop; and the C9 boutique, which features the work of local clothing designers. Tucked in among the newcomers are a handful of the street's surviving old-school businesses, like the Boardwalk Bar and the R&D Sausage Co.
Informally dubbed the "Waterloo Arts District," the neighborhood was officially named the "Waterloo Entertainment District" at the behest of Barber and other business owners.
Even their remaining Old World neighbors are buying into the vision.
"When we came here, we met with the Slovenians, and they were not very friendly," says Gyorki. "Over the years, they got friendlier. Then one day, Councilman Polensek said, 'You will never believe what the Slovenians said: They're really happy to have this art stuff; you're turning the neighborhood around!' Collinwood's history is Eastern European, and they're tight. To get them to a place where they're comfortable is huge."
Now the Slovenian Workman's Home hosts an occasional show for the Beachland on nights when they've got something else booked, and it's headquarters for the Upstage Players, a community children's theater.
"It's been a very organic process," says Music Saves' Hershberger. "The people who have opened businesses here have done it for the same reasons we have — wanting to contribute to the growth of something new and have an impact on something happening."
These days, the resurgence in North Collinwood extends beyond the business district. Artists, musicians, and other newcomers are starting to make homes in the area, buying up cheap old houses on surrounding streets and rehabbing them.
Ken Janssen, who was hired by Barber in 2007 when an injury cost him his job waiting tables, became the booker of the Beachland's shows. But a higher calling led him to move on last month.
"I could do more for the neighborhood as a realtor than a talent booker," he says. Now he's courting new residents for North Collinwood's remaining empty homes.
Other signs of life are sprouting up everywhere. Back in 2007, Northeast Shores, the neighborhood's development group, sought a modest sum from the city for a basic street spruce-up. Instead the city picked the area for a major renovation — with an award of $4.6 million. The project is now in its community input and design phase, with work slated to begin by 2013.
"When Cindy started the Beachland, her entire traffic drove there," says Brian Friedman, executive director of Northeast Shores. "It wasn't foot traffic. Slowly, we're building an artist and artist-friendly population. Eleven years ago, Cindy talked about there being a residential component. At the time, that was an unreasonable request of a home buyer. Why would I buy a house so I could walk home after a concert?"
In late July, the nonprofit arts incubator Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC) announced that Waterloo was chosen over 12 other Cleveland neighborhoods to receive a $500,000 grant to encourage artists to buy homes in the area.
"The neighborhood will be a test lab for how we provide artists with affordable space and offer them a chance to contribute to the growth of a neighborhood," says CPAC spokesman Seth Beattie, who coordinated the grant.
"Our hope is when you do a few projects in a small area, it will empower people to play a bigger role in turning around their neighborhood. This sort of work is already happening there. We want to provide the resources to make it happen on a deeper level."
Meanwhile, the concert club that started it all has yet to find its own prosperity mode.
The Beachland's fiery relationship with House of Blues cooled a few years back when a new corporate parent there instituted more conservative booking policies aimed more at making money than making a splash. But the Beachland still totes debt from its fallow years — debt that Leddy wistfully says they hope to retire eventually.
But for now they're busy dousing the flames of a new crisis. In recent years, the city of Cleveland overhauled its longstanding admissions tax on event tickets; in 2009 it passed legislation to step up enforcement of the 8 percent tax.
Barber says the Beachland started feeling pressure from the city in early 2010. It's been told it's on the hook for about $400,000 in back taxes and penalties for the past three years (as far back as the tax can be collected). The club met with the city last week, but has yet to learn how to proceed.
City spokeswoman Andrea Taylor declined to comment specifically on the Beachland's situation. "The city is committed to protecting the public and administering tax ordinances in a fair and equitable manner," she said in a statement.
"The city will ensure that all responsible businesses, large and small, meet their obligation to collect and remit the appropriate tax due."
To Barber and Leddy, the tax unfairly penalizes Cleveland-based businesses — and gouges them where they're already taking a hit.
"We don't make money on the door," says Leddy, adding that any payoff comes from sales of booze. "They are taxing a portion of your business that is a loss to begin with. That's a big, dark cloud hanging over the Beachland. Every time the city comes after us, Cindy's colitis kicks up."
Scott Fine is a professor of banking and finance at Case Western Reserve's Weatherhead School of Management. He's also a big music fan who has brainstormed with Barber and Leddy about how to make better sense of their finances. He says they've done some preliminary exploration of converting the club to a not-for-profit entity, which could clear the way to have their tax debt forgiven.
Fine thinks they should lay their cards on the table and play hardball with the city: let them know what's at stake — not just for the club, but for the Waterloo neighborhood it built.
"Hire someone or have a friend go in and tell the city you can forgive this debt or forgive most or it, or here are the keys to the building," he says. "And then the city can explain to the press and the public why the Beachland went under and why the whole neighborhood went under.
"Because if the Beachland goes under, what happens to the rest of the block?"
Another reasonable question: What would happen to Barber and Leddy?
"Much of why we're open has nothing to do with making money," Leddy says. Though their romance has cooled, he and Barber continue to spend most of their waking hours at the Beachland, basking in the music and neighborhood they love.
"I guess it comes down to we're too stubborn to close. We talked other businesses into putting their lives and savings on the line.
"On paper we're bankrupt," he says. "But we feel the city needs us."