New Businesses for an Abandoned Cleveland Shopping District
Frank Azman is about to reveal the secret that’s kept customers coming to the family butcher shop for nearly 90 years.
FRANK AZMAN: (brick door to meat smoker scrapes open) “This is the smoke house…”
This blackened brick chamber has been smoking sausages and other meats using cherry wood for decades. Azman’s Meats, started by his grandfather here at 65th and St. Clair, is one of the few remaining businesses in a once vibrant commercial district that served a largely Slovenian population.
FRANK AZMAN: This was such a hub for everything. If you lived in this area, back then, you didn’t need a car to go anywhere. You could do everything on St. Clair Avenue.
That’s all changed. Most of his clientele live in the eastern suburbs, now, and he sometimes gets orders from out of state. Over the past 40 years, businesses along this strip of St. Clair have closed down or moved, leaving empty storefronts in their wake. Michael Fleming, who heads the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation, began looking for ways to refill those spaces.
MICHAEL FLEMING: There were a lot of reasons why this was a great neighborhood historically, and there was no reason why it couldn’t still be.
Fleming noted the success that some neighborhoods had found in offering abandoned storefronts to aspiring entrepreneurs who set-up temporary, or “pop-up shops”. Someone with an idea for a business, but no place to house it, was given a rent break from a property owner looking to get some money from empty retail space. Fleming decided to take that idea and up the ante
MICHAEL FLEMING: Instead of one business moving into a space, how about doing multiple businesses --- so that it had a sort of dynamic, neighborhood feel to it.
Fleming partnered with the Urban League of Greater Cleveland to identify some experimental businesses or organizations to plant along St. Clair Avenue. Urban League Small Business expert Donna Dabbs and her staff came up with a list of 80 potential candidates.
DONNA DABBS: And we whittled it down to 25, and then we whittled it down to the last 12-15 recommendations that we turned over to St. Clair Superior, so that they could make the final decision.
That final cut included a bakery, an art gallery, a dance studio, and a shop that’s actually a collection of shops, called the Cleveland Flea. Owner Stephanie Sheldon says it’s the city’s only “hip” flea market
STEPHANIE SHELDON: We take the essence of a flea market as being a treasure hunt. We just different items.
The Cleveland Flea hosts a variety of vendors, ranging from artisans to food purveyors to sellers of architectural salvage. The operation is headquartered in a century-old building distinguished by two, majestic, pointed turrets, at the corner of Norwood and St. Clair. Sheldon is an Ann Arbor transplant who was out of a job and looking to start over.
STEPHANIE SHELDON: I wanted to come to sort of an undercurrent city where I could do stuff like this. It’s harder to do stuff like this when you’re in a New York or Chicago, even. There’s not necessarily the real estate for it.
Local development director Michael Fleming says he’s looking to nurture that inventive spirit. But, it goes beyond that. Fleming says St. Clair Superior is helping to fix-up some of the older storefronts, as well.
MICHAEL FLEMING: We need to focus on more than just the new businesses, because there are a lot of guys that have been here for a while and have struggled through the hard times.
Like Carl and Senait Robson, who opened the popular Empress Taytu Ethiopian restaurant here in 1993. Senait says she and her husband stuck it out all these years, despite the warnings of their friends.
SENAIT ROBSON: People always tell us, “Go to Cleveland Heights, go open at Coventry --- you’ll be millionaires. You’ve opened at the wrong spot.”
Carl Robson says people consider the neighborhood dangerous, but he doesn’t see it that way.
SENAIT ROBSON: I don’t think we ever really had a real problem with safety --- three or four break-ins after hours in twenty years.
Frank Azman stands at the front door of his butcher shop and peers out through a set of wrought iron security bars at the building down the street that houses the Cleveland Flea. He says it used to be the home of a furniture store, and it’s nice to see some activity there again. He’s keeping his fingers crossed for the St. Clair redevelopment plan to succeed.
FRANK AZMAN: I’ve been through the worst of it; now things are pretty good. I hope this becomes another Tremont.
Given the fact that there are still plenty of abandoned storefronts, that may take a while. As residents of growing communities like Tremont, Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway know, it takes time to turn a neighborhood around.