by Tom Orange
excerpted from the Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook
What’s in a name? In my neighborhood, confusion. Countless lifelong Greater Clevelanders have asked me, “So what part of town do you live in?” and I always begin my answer, “Well, the city calls it ‘Brooklyn Centre,’ but…” Before I can finish,my questioner inevitably pipes up, “Oh, you mean Old Brooklyn?” No, if I meant Old Brooklyn, I would have said Old Brooklyn. “Oh, you mean Brooklyn the suburb?” No, not Brooklyn the suburb, and not the suburb of Brooklyn Heights either. If my questioner gives me a chance, I will usually try out “Archwood-Denison” for a response, and if that meets with a blank stare, I’ll usually say, “it’s near the zoo.” Final answer.
Here’s the quick history lesson. At some point 200 years or so ago, everything west of the Cuyahoga River in the Connecticut Western Reserve was called Brooklyn Township. Two villages developed in the township: one village near the lake, around the intersection of Pearl and Detroit Roads, eventually incorporated as the city of Ohio and then, like nearly everything else in area, was annexed into Cleveland, yet retained some identity as the neighborhood of Ohio City; another village farther to the south, around the intersection of Pearl and Denison Roads, never incorporated, was annexed into Cleveland and eschewed identity for the confusion with various other Brooklyns that still exists today.
Add to the name confusion the infrastructural obstruction known as I-71, which plows right through the west-east axis of Brooklyn Centre from Fulton Road to West 25th Street/Pearl Road, and the result is a neighborhood with some challenges. Highways really do not help a neighborhood cohere, grow or flourish, but they do encourage easy flight. Which is important, because otherwise there aren’t a lot of so-called modern conveniences here: we lost our one grocery store a few years ago, and our one shopping center can barely keep a furniture rental store and a check-cashing place open. We have three fast food joints, a lot of corner stores, a lot of bars, and a lot of churches.
Paradoxically though, Brooklyn Centre is all about location, location, location: with I-71’s first southbound exit out of downtown running right through the neighborhood, you have quick and easy car access to almost every other part of town. You also have access to four or ve major bus lines, and bike access has improved a great deal too since Fulton, Denison and West 25th have all been repaved within the past year. (If you like to bike the C&O Towpath, that trailhead below the Harvard-Denison Bridge is very close too.)
Beyond easy flight elsewhere, Brooklyn Centre’s greatest asset is its mixed stock of affordable and attractive housing. Unlike some near west- side neighborhoods with long, skinny streets containing row after row of shoddily built worker shacks that were never well cared for, Archwood Avenue in particular (one block north of Denison) has some beautiful century homes, generally closer to West 25th than Fulton. Those early village settlers built well, and you can see where the original homesteaders set up shop, with more affordable single and two-family homes filling in between. The other avenues north of Archwood (Mapledale, Riverside, and then in the sliver of the neighborhood north of I-71, Poe and Library) also have some nice houses. Some of these are going to be beyond typical starter-home budgets, but they’re still going to be a lot cheaper than the trendier near west side neighborhoods. You can find decent old colonials that don’t need extensive rehabbing in the low five figures. And if you’re in the market for a 19th-century historic church, one of those sold in my neighborhood a few years ago for the middle five figures.
Vestiges of history and culture survive here. Like Ohio City and Tremont, Brooklyn Centre hosts one of Cleveland’s century-old Carnegie- funded neighborhood branches of the Cleveland Public Library, where I do most of my internet work and procure the latest reads and video entertainment. Riverside Cemetery, perched on the outer bank of I-71’s Metro curve, is peaceful, if not quite as illustrious as Lakeview Cemetery. Art House, on Denison, is a non-profit arts facility that offers workshops and a monthly family-oriented open house in addition to facilitating arts instruction at the local public schools. (Not being a parent, I can’t add anything about neighborhood schools.) Moncho’s, a Colombian-owned cafe, just opened up this year and offers daily specials, small plates and Wi-Fi — the closest thing we have to coffee shop culture.
Beyond that, there are plenty of neighborhood bars, the Ugly Broad being my favorite. Sherry Perry has been running the place since 1981, and I’m pretty sure the bar’s name preceded her. With a pool table, dozens of John Wayne photos on the wall, bad 1970s rock and current pop-country faves on the jukebox, a bookshelf with some old paperbacks and a few board games, and Sherry’s dog Shiloh snoozing in her bed near the entrance, it’s the kind of place you walk into with a few friends, everyone puts a $10 bill on the bar, and you buy each other rounds all night. No live music, not big enough for that. A functioning kitchen that serves one entree per night that vegetarians will need to skip, and then various clambakes and rib cook-offs throughout the year. It’s a real “family” bar. I’ll never forget when I first walked in there, behind the bar a sign was posted: This Saturday, $10 all- you-can eat spaghetti dinner, to benefit Donna’s son Mike. Clearly I was not the target audience, not knowing Donna or what kinda shit Mike got into, but I felt welcome all the same. These are folks looking out for each other.
Twice a year, the neighborhood gets together for the Archwood Street Fair, held the first weekend in June and September, where all the neighbors come together to put their unwanted crap out on their front lawns to sell. Sometimes you can find a real bargain, but mostly it’s worth people-watching, putting neighbors’ faces to houses, and the home-cooking that folks sell from their front lawns: Polish Boys, barbequed chicken, tamales, pupusas, cod fritters, you name it. It’s the neighborhood at its best, all different kinds of folks coming together to acknowledge that, hey, we may not have it great here, but we don’t have it all that bad either. I mean, sure we’ve got crime, boarded up vacant houses and absentee landlords, but we’ve also got some former vacant lots that folks have turned into community gardens, and I met a couple that started a fruit tree orchard along the ridge of Big Creek Valley a few years ago.
I know some neighborhood activists who feel strongly that Brooklyn Centre is poised to become hip and trendy, the next Tremont or Gordon Square. But honestly, does Cleveland really need or want that? Cleveland Scene said it best about a dive bar here: this is the kind of bar that hipsters would flock to, if hipsters lived in this neighborhood, which they don’t, and that’s exactly the way the locals like it. Let celebrity chefs, developers, and the monthly art-walkers colonize Gordon Square, Collinwood and Slavic Village. We’ll visit from time to time, and then take that short drive back to our un-hip, un-trendy Brooklyn Centre home.
Tom Orange was born and raised in Berea, left town at 18 and, several cities and university degrees later, boomeranged back home and has been living in Brooklyn Centre since 2010. He’s Jazz Director at WCSB 89.3 FM, co-founder of the educational-promotional group New Ghosts, and an active performer in the local rock, jazz and experimental music scenes.