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."