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Cleveland Is Getting Better

You may not believe this, but according to Wally the barkeep . . .


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Wally Pisorn remembers the truly violent days, when even lawyers were quick to throw a punch. - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Wally Pisorn remembers the truly violent days, when even lawyers were quick to throw a punch.

You might say Wally Pisorn is intimate with violence.

Born in the Slovenian Republic during World War II, his earliest memories are of occupation by the Italian army and the American bombs meant to dislodge it. When sirens carved the air, his mother would hustle her nine kids into a bunker. Dad was in the woods, fighting as part of the resistance.

"If he been home, they probably kill him," says Wally.

The war's end would do them no favors. If the Italians were murderous sociopaths, the commies were worse. Dad fled to Austria, then Cleveland. "He leave because after the war, the communists take over and kill many, many people."

It's hard to imagine today, but 1950s Cleveland was considered paradise in the manual of Eastern Bloc flight. If you owned a sturdy back and a willingness to grind, there was good work — at good wages — everywhere you turned. "At the time there was a lot of factories," says Wally. "Easy to get job."

Dad became a steelworker. But intercontinental air travel was still in its infancy, and seats from Eastern Europe sold for $2,000 a pop, nearly as much as a house. One by one, Dad bought passage for his family. It wouldn't be until 1964 — nearly 20 years after the war — that Wally arrived in paradise.

Here's where the story turns to one of immigrant success. He worked at a machine shop, then at the downtown Sheraton. With loans from other Slovenians, he eventually saved enough to buy the Harbor Inn in 1969.

Opened in the Flats in 1895, it wasn't much to look at. Half the joint still had dirt floors. And when Wally bought the place, the West Bank wasn't the odd confluence of luxury condos and abandoned buildings that it is today. It had gotten an early jump on what would become Cleveland's multi-decade plunge into disrepair. Wally puts it succinctly: "It was a very rough area. There were a few bars, junkyards all around, and it was a dump place for dead people, murders."

Ah yes, murders.

In reminiscing about Cleveland past, we tend to forget this was always a violent place. The gangsters of the era weren't rap-video wannabes and half-wit midgets made tough by the piece of steel tucked into their belts. They were usually family men — Italians, Irish, Jews — with a gift for making money, and an equal gift for killing each other in spectacularly vicious ways.

Their preferred method was what's now antiseptically called the Improvised Explosive Device. Clevelanders were employing them long before psychos in Iraq got in on the game, setting them off on front porches, in cars in dentists' parking lots. A thirtysomething Lakewood man recalls how his childhood neighbor, a union official, always started his Caddy by remote control. To do otherwise was an expedient route to becoming a former union official.

They also killed silently, dumping their prey amid the decay surrounding the Harbor Inn. Detectives regularly visited Wally to see whether he knew anything about the latest body found not far from his door. Were Cleveland to witness such violence today, Mayor Frank Jackson wouldn't be cracking down on gun possession; he'd be calling the National Guard.

And in Wally's corner of the world, vengeance wasn't simply the province of gangsters. The Harbor Inn has always served a pleasant mix of tradesmen and professional drunks, decorated with a layer of cops and white collars. By day, they were family men, the kind who showed up for work, put food on tables, and went to Mass every Sunday. By night, however, it wasn't uncommon to see these same men pounding away on strangers for no apparent reason.

"There was almost problem every day," says Wally.

The longshoremen and construction guys didn't take kindly to the suits and ties sharing their habitat. And in those days, the suits weren't the pink-golf-shirt variety now found in freeway-exit bistros. They were ex-football players and ex-Marines who became lawyers and prosecutors. They weren't inclined to back away from a challenge, no matter how stupid the dispute.

A bump, a bad look, one too many shots — suddenly someone's getting his face pounded in. And if you lost the first bout, it wasn't uncommon to seek a rematch — or three.

Fortunately, to pull a gun or a knife was considered effete. As a friend likes to say, "Guns are for pussies."

It went on this way through the '90s, says Wally, until the modern world chased Cleveland down. Harsher drunk-driving laws stemmed the flow of whiskey. Judges lost their boys-will-be-boys sensibility toward felony assault. And instead of asking for a rematch, losers now ask for damages for emotional distress.

Some see it as the sissification of America. Real gangsters replaced by 14-year-old morons. Real tough guys replaced by punks who go for guns at the slightest threat. Maybe it's not the violence we resent. Maybe it's just that candy-asses are the only ones practicing a time-honored tradition.

Wally doesn't care what you call it. He just knows it's better. These days, you'll mostly find him keeping peaceful sentry on a corner stool, talking to the regulars. He can't recall the Harbor Inn's last fight — "probably 1990s."

And while the rest of us may see a city plummeting toward a Rust Belt Hell, Wally Pisorn, a lifelong student of violence, sees a pleasing ascension in the opposite direction.

"It's very more easy now," he says. "It's all around. It's very nice."

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