We're a city that loves its neighborhoods. Even more than that, we love talking about our neighborhoods. Over time, that talk of "cool" and "hip" turns to action and thus awesomeness is born. Slavic Village, billed more and more these days as "the next neighborhood" toward whatever definition you like, boasts a unique identity within Cleveland that goes far beyond the potentially trendy. Anthony Trzaska, a son of Fleet Avenue and the director of development at the Nash on East 80th, wants the whole city to know what's happening there. He's passionate about this place. And he thinks that once you show up to hang out here or, hell, live and work here, you will be too.
We last spoke with you about a year ago. How have things been going at the Nash since?
There's a loaded question there. There are a host of issues with all things Slavic Village, but as it relates to me and the Nash, we've really been doing all that we can to continue moving forward. This is a very exciting time, but the exciting time is happening because there are some changes that need to be made and are being made.
Could you briefly describe the Nash and the neighborhood's history?
One component of what we've branded the Nash on East 80th is the Slovenian National Home organization, which is a 97-year-old organization founded in 1917 by the Slovenians that were populating the Slavic Village neighborhood. The other thing is the building, which is this historic 95-year-old social club that was the home to these Slovenians that were moving in, specifically into the St. Lawrence neighborhood. Slavic Village is kind of a collection of neighborhoods. Everyone was flocking to this city and this neighborhood to work in the mills. Fast-forward, and we're in a much different neighborhood made up of much different people with strong roots. Those are the roots I'm trying to hold onto and enhance and make relevant again in today's Slavic Village again.
Where does the Nash fit into today's Slavic Village?
Well, now, the families that made up the organization are dwindling in number. The families that lived in this neighborhood are dwindling in number. The use of the Nash, therefore is also dwindling. It has been for years. My efforts in the first place are just to do what it takes to keep the place going. My focus is on preserving the historic building to allow the organization to continue doing what it's doing.
I mean, for instance, the Nash's Facebook page seems well populated. People are talking. What does it take to keep things going?
There is a market for this. "The new wave of the old world" is something that I repeat over and over and over again. That's what this identity is. And it doesn't have to be strictly Eastern European or anything that is the old Slavic Village. This is the new wave of the old world, the individuals and the grassroots movement that is now reinventing Cleveland. At the Nash, it's not just new programming; there's so much more that needs to happen. I'm still peeling the onion. People are just now discovering this place because up until three years ago when I joined it wasn't even open to the greater Cleveland community.
And you have broader interests in Slavic Village, too, right? Apart from growing up there and helming development at the Nash?
Earlier this year I formed this company [Sonny Day Development] that is in part based on everything the Nash needs. I want to rinse and repeat this model for the other good, genuine property owners in this neighborhood, the existing fabric. They just need help. The roots need to be embraced. We're in this exciting time based on the necessity of the times here where the Nash project is officially being born. This begins on Jan. 4 with the Bothsider Bowling League, which is a collaboration between Mahall's in Lakewood and the Nash in Slavic Village. This is the test market for the Nash project. I don't want this to be just another event at the Nash. This is something new.
Reviving the neighborhood probably involves fresh customers from outside the neighborhood. Hence the Bothsider League, likely. What's the significance of getting people in from outside Slavic Village?
It means everything. I live in Lakewood, but I grew up on Fleet Avenue directly across the street from the Fortuna Funeral Home, which my grandfather founded about 60 years ago. I know this neighborhood. Actually, if I could pause that thought for a moment?
The Nash's issues and its decline and potential are a perfect microcosm for the Slavic Village as a whole -- the old guard and the new guard. And I think Slavic Village is a perfect microcosm for the city of Cleveland. And so when Cleveland is finally reinventing itself and putting itself on a map on a nationwide level, and all of us Clevelanders are like, "Yeah, well, we've been cool for a long time," that's how I am about Slavic Village. I'm enjoying that other people are starting to get it. Those other people don't come from within Slavic Village. There's a huge existing fabric that is here and there are so many wonderful things going on in this neighborhood that no one else knows about. The only press, no offense, that we get is negative press all the way back to before we were ground zero for the foreclosure crisis. That was only seven years ago, but now we have so many great things going on. There's the Fleetscape project, which is a $9-million complete and green street renovation of the street I'm standing on now.
Does commercial development then follow?
If it combines business development with real estate development and this geographic area, that's what Sonny Day is. The new people come not only in the form of visitors to the neighborhood, but it's the makers that need to repopulate these storefronts that are sitting here dormant. They're way better than any going rate anywhere else, obviously. It's something that I'm trying to recruit now for 18 months from now when the street is done. If we can develop the commercial corridor while the street is being developed for us, then Slavic Village in 2016 could happen. I don't think there's a better comeback story, if you want to use that word, than what was ground zero for the nation's foreclosure crisis seven years ago. That, geez, there's so much more to it, but recruiting that business is challenging.
Aside from the street work that's ongoing, what's the structural or architectural climate of the neighborhood? Like what will incoming tenants be seeing?
I'm looking down the street right now at all of these storefronts that are built on the front of existing residential structures. That's because, 100 years ago when the street was being formed, everyone was just living here. They were packing 70,000 people in this neighborhood to go work in the mills. This has always been a blue-collar neighborhood and it always will be. You know, we're not going to be the Ohio City entertainment district. That's better suited for Ohio City. This is just a market district. It formed because the poor people that lived here wanted an opportunity to sell their wares. It was dairy in one, then butcher in another, then probably butcher, butcher, butcher. They made what they could and they sold what they could. The commercial aspect of this whole identity was kind of an add-on. I'm looking at all these new spaces that just need new life and I'm looking at a Cleveland that's growing exponentially because of these makers. There's a way to tie all of this together. It's happening in real-time. I'm trying to harness all of that.
I think that narrative is becoming clearer within the context of the city.
That's great to hear. There's so much that can happen. Alex Nosse from Joy Machines is one of my good friends. I went to Ignatius with him. I've talked to him about this. He was in Ohio City before it was cool to be in Ohio City and he then watched it grow exponentially. Some would argue that it grew to a fault. That's just the fact that we can't please every Clevelander. The point is, I've talked to other folks in that neighborhood who now can't afford to live there and work there if they're paying rent in a storefront and paying rent to live somewhere within walking distance of where they work, which is the whole point of it in the first place. Some of the things that Slavic Village can offer are answers to that. Maybe it lowers the return for any one individual developer, but it's so much more important than that.
And with respect to commercial development, the Nash seems to be at the epicenter in Slavic Village.
There are so many positive effects to any little bit of development that you don't really see unless you're looking for it. In the grand scheme, if someone wants to write about the next brewery that's opening up, well, of course I'd like to have a microbrewery on Fleet Avenue or something that will be a draw. But I don't want to define this by commercial development that doesn't make sense for the neighborhood. Everything I'm trying to do -- I'm talking about a Slovenian National Home with 12 bowling lanes and a bar in the basement and then also this amazing social space upstairs with room for like 700 people. That could be anything from a grade school graduation to a polka party. I just want to open the doors up to these kids and families and visitors and for everyone to have a nice slice of Cleveland.