Dentist Heinz Mikota points a finger out the front window of his second-floor apartment overlooking Literary Avenue in Tremont, through the scrolls of the black metal grill he crafted himself.
He's recalling a night several years ago when he heard a commotion outside. He looked out that window to spot a young woman on her back in his driveway, legs in the air, having sex with the traffic cone he plants there to keep people from parking on his property.
"That cone has never been the same," says his wife Janet.
The Mikotas say the drunken young woman had stumbled out of the 806 Martini and Wine Bar, which sits next to their driveway, no more than ten feet from their side windows.
It's far from their only brush with the bar's patrons. They've had their door damaged, found vomit in their driveway, cigarette butts everywhere. But what really upsets them is the noise. They point to the bar's three patios — so close to their home they can eavesdrop on conversations. Now "they want outdoor music on their patio," Heinz says with indignation. "They've already had live bands inside dozens of times. In the summer they keep the front door open, and people are going in and out."
The Mikotas live just off Professor Avenue, the three-block street in the heart of Tremont where businesses abut homes and longtime residents rub shoulders with newcomers who tend to revel in the nightlife. Here, routine culture clashes are inevitable.
What once had been an occasional problem — lots of people descending on the neighborhood to dine and gallery-hop during monthly Tremont Art Walks — has become an every-weekend problem, even an every-day problem in warm weather, when people gather on patios and hang out until early morning. It's led the city to entertain changes to its ages-old rules governing noise — changes intended to help Tremont coexist with itself, but which would also reverberate across Cleveland's other nightlife hubs.
But any potential solutions won't happen for months. And with summer crowds fast approaching, the battle for Tremont is reaching fever pitch.
April hasn't quite shaken off winter's chill on a recent Friday night. Yet, closing in on midnight, a sprinkling of twentysomething couples stroll down Professor, smoking and looking for their next drink. The Treehouse's two spacious patios are empty, its speakers blasting the Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight" to a gaggle of young men clustered on the sidewalk just outside the bar. But add some nice weather, multiply these young people by a hundred, and it's easy for neighbors to project a nightmare vision of the strip they call home.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. Tremont went through several lifetimes to become what it is today: a trendy neighborhood full of galleries, shops, bars, and restaurants that attract young professionals.
Once it was a working-class neighborhood with a bar on every corner patronized by the people who lived on the block.
"You had Russians and Ukrainians and all the different ethnic mixes in Tremont because of the steel mills," says Sammy Catania, development director of Tremont West Development Corporation and a resident since 1989. "I grew up in the city of Cleveland off 93rd, between Kinsman and Union, and it was like that too. Everyone had their own neighborhood bar, neighborhood fish place. Every VFW had a different nationality. And there were 50-60 percent less automobiles then, so parking needs were different."
By the 1990s, the neighborhood had grown rough. The steel mills closed. Housing stock was shabby. But in the mid-1990s, a few pioneers started turning Tremont around. Michael Symon, years away from being an internationally known Iron Chef, opened Lola on Professor. Then the Treehouse was christened a block away. Attorney Jean Brandt turned part of her storefront office on Kenilworth into an art gallery. That led to a host of other galleries and eventually to Tremont Art Walks.
Now three of the corners of Professor and Literary host a destination restaurant: Lolita, Lago, and Dante, all of them celebrated gourmet establishments visited by diners from across the region. Another, Fahrenheit, is two blocks up the street. Then there are the bars: 806, a few steps from Lago on Literary; the Treehouse at the other end of Dante's block; Edison's; the Flying Monkey.
"The issues have been rapidly progressing for about 10 years, but it's been getting worse," says Jerleen Justice, a community activist who also writes for the small near-West Side newspaper The Plain Press. Her family has lived near the corner of Literary and West Seventh, a block from the Professor strip, for more than 40 years. She says revelers coming out of the bars leave behind used condoms and urinate in the flowers.
To her and others, the frustration starts with the congestion caused by on-street parking.
"It began with the Treehouse — you can see it out our window," she says. "There, the parking wasn't quite so bad to begin with. But then the bars went to the [Cleveland] board of zoning appeals and got a variance [for] the number of required spaces. Once that was handed down, they built patios in those spaces. The Flying Monkey did that. Treehouse did that. Lago did it when they were Mojo. Tremont West supported all these expansions."
The decrease in dedicated parking spaces in favor of more party space created a glut of on-street parkers.
Justice points to a handicapped space that was put in for residents like her mother, who at 79 has had two knee replacements. But she says restaurant and bar patrons don't respect handicapped zones — or hydrants, crosswalks, or even residents' own driveways.
"Commander [Keith] Sulzer has been great trying to get enforcement down there," says Justice. "But they can't babysit. As soon as one car moves, another pulls in. [Sulzer] said it's a low priority for police, and I agree. But if you don't have enforcement, it puts you to square one."
Heinz Mikota sees it all the time.
"Outside my house is a tow-away zone, and every single weekend cars are parked there," he says. "Police cars cruise by; they don't notice anything. They don't notice people standing outside 806, yelling and screaming. Police cars drive by slowly while there is a dozen people in front of 806 with beer bottles in hand, yelling and screaming. A few weeks ago there was a truck parked on a sidewalk next to a hydrant. A police car went by and did nothing."
Councilman Joe Cimperman isn't convinced that the problem is so bad.
"Ten years ago we had a huge debate about the 806 wine bar," he says. "It was the largest-attended zoning board appeal meeting ever — 140 people attended. People said they were leaving the neighborhood because they didn't get what they wanted. To this day, I haven't met a person who has left the neighborhood because of parking. It's serious, but we're clearly making progress."
But to residents like Justice and the Mikotas, the parking problem is emblematic of larger woes brewing on their streets, and the Treehouse and 806 draw the bulk of their ire. Both buildings are owned by Tom Lenaghan, and both businesses attract crowds of drinkers and lingerers who take up residence on the patios in warm weather.
"We have sleep deprivation," Heinz says. "When they are closed on Sunday and Monday, the street is half-empty. On weekends, it's bumper to bumper. Commander Sulzer is supportive: He says, 'Call when you see anything.' But then we get a letter from the safety director about how excessive calls are expensive."
He displays a letter dated March 11, 2011, from Cleveland Safety Director Martin Flask citing him for "repeated calls" that place an "undue and inappropriate burden on the taxpayers of the city of Cleveland and on our safety forces." The letter says Mikota called police eight times in the previous year. Mikota doesn't think that's excessive for someone who lives spitting distance from a bar. He says Sulzer told him it's a form letter and to ignore it.
"He'll complain about anything," counters Lenaghan. "He has to realize he lives next door to a bar."
Paul Jones, Lenaghan's managing partner at the Treehouse, says the vitriol stems from the neighborhood's old-timers. "There's been some bad blood between old neighbors and new neighbors," he says. "One of the neighbors called to complain on a Saturday three or four months ago, and there was nobody performing."
He says much of the neighborhood, and especially the younger generation, supports the bar. "I think there's a small amount of people angry — people who have been here for years and years. But we're not here to steamroll anybody."
Look around the place on an early spring weekend, and it's hard to see who's being bothered. Perched on the corner of Professor and College, the Treehouse is ringed by vacant lots and a power station. Across the street on Professor is St. John Cantius church. Across College, Jones points to a couple of houses and names the residents. "They're always in here," he says.
And in a few weeks, the Treehouse will shed its status as a bastion just for drinkers when it begins full food service. Lenaghan and Jones have constructed a kitchen from scratch on the second floor and added booths in back. More people coming in for meals will likely cut down on the number of sidewalk cruisers looking for drinks and a flower bed to urinate in. It leaves the Flying Monkey Pub, a block away, as the only place on the street that's solely a bar.
And, says Commander Sulzer, "We've never once gotten a complaint about the Flying Monkey."
Tremont resident Henry Senyak is an earnest little man with a professorial air, who is fond of marshalling armies of facts to bring to bear on a situation. A longtime neighborhood activist — and, to some, a troublemaker — he once took on a bar that disrupted his corner of the world, and he won.
That bar is now the Tap House on Scranton, which Senyak calls a good neighbor. In August 2009, he was appointed to the board of Tremont West, a group many veteran Tremont residents consider "the enemy," alleging that it favors business and upscale newcomers. Senyak was elected to a two-year term shortly after, and this year he was voted its first vice president.
"Henry was — I don't want to say anti-Tremont West, but very scrutinous," says Tremont West's Catania. "But he offered solutions. Does he take a negative position? Absolutely. But people like Henry stuck it out when the neighborhood was being burnt down."
As a board member, Senyak straddles both sides of the divide, continuing to take a resident's point of view while working as an insider with business interests. And he seems to relish his role as unofficial sheriff of clubland.
"I've helped shut down a dozen clubs all over the West Side," he says with pride. "I make people paranoid. I can recite code."
Now he can rewrite code too.
The City of Cleveland's codes pertaining to bars, restaurants, and places of entertainment haven't been spruced up since the late 1920s. The billiard parlors and roller rinks they once regulated have long since given way to nightclubs blasting DJs and live bands. Senyak was part of a committee organized over winter by Councilman Cimperman to propose changes and updates.
On an early April Friday morning, Senyak has rounded up a couple dozen folks for a meeting of the planning commission called to discuss the problems in Tremont.
Heinz Mikota has come to tell his cone sex story.
Mary Ann Ludwig, who owns Scoops ice cream parlor on Professor, is in a hurry to get back to preparations for the fast-approaching peak season. But she's taken time to talk about how the parlor is often empty on prime Saturday afternoons and evenings in summer because people can't find a place to park for six blocks. She adds that she can't book kids' birthdays on Saturday either because of the behavior and foul language of bar patrons.
By the end of the meeting, proposed changes to the code governing patio noise have been tabled until a few amendments can be considered. But Senyak sees progress. The commission seemed to like his idea to increase permit fees for businesses that are more likely to generate police calls, and to use the money to hire a nighttime inspector to deal with noise problems.
"I think they were surprised at the amount of people who turned out," he says. "I don't think they thought I could throw a good party. I could have tripled the number of people in the room, but I brought the people with the worst problems."
Two weeks later, the revisions are taken up at the planning commission's regular meeting. Among them is a stricter proposal to outlaw patio music between the hours of midnight and 8 a.m. — paring two additional hours off the last meeting's recommendation. Senyak has brought some of his army back, but this time numerous bar owners, many from bar-saturated West Park, have shown up to fight for their patios.
A representative from the Velvet Dog on West Sixth Street in the Warehouse District says that he'll be out of business if he has to shut patio music off at midnight or negotiate with neighbors like the owners of the upscale Pinnacle condos just behind him.
Jason Beudert of Panini's in West Park claims that a Cleveland bar owner has only 30 days a year to make money off his outdoor spaces, a reference to Friday and Saturday nights for about 15 warm-weather weeks. And patios don't get busy until 11 p.m. He calls the noise restrictions a "major hindrance."
But the patio restriction is approved, including a provision allowing input from neighbors who live within 1,000 feet — what's called "conditional use" — to make sure an establishment's music plans aren't disruptive to others. Lenaghan and Jones of the Treehouse say they're glad to work with neighbors.
Senyak is pleased with the new patio regulations, though relief still lingers out of reach. The planning commission now must finalize a draft of code revisions that would go to city council early this summer. While the changes are aimed at diminishing the resident-business conflicts over time, they won't be in place fast enough to keep the peace in Tremont anytime soon.
As for parking? That battle rages on.
"The parking situation in any urban area that's regenerating is actually a result of a good thing," Tremont West's Catania says. "It means people are moving back into the urban area and people are opening businesses."
But he and Senyak recognize that tempers will continue to flare if the issue isn't addressed. So Tremont West is crafting what they hope will be at least a partial solution: a neighborhood-wide valet service to replace restaurants' individual leased parking lots and current valet services that often clog the narrow streets.
Answering criticism that the valets themselves often park cars on the streets, Senyak is working with Tremont West to negotiate with area schools, churches, and libraries to use their lots at night. Three designated valet stations would serve the area, taking the cars to attended lots. For a few bucks, visitors could drop their cars at any of the stations and pick them up at any of them — the better to browse shops or grab a nightcap after dining. Purchases at area businesses could yield discounted or free parking. Tremont West is studying bids from valet companies and hopes to award the contract by summer.
As always, there is opposition. Jerleen Justice points out that while valet parking might work for the couple who spend $100 or more on dinner at Dante or Fahrenheit, those who drop by for a quick drink at a local watering hole will continue to park on surrounding streets, forgoing the hassle of valet parking. And in Tremont, "quick drinks" have a way of turning into festive hours spent at the bar.
To Catania, no agreement in the world could silence Tremont's vocal minority.
"Some people like to drive a divisive wedge," he says. "It gets old. It's that rich/poor, have/have-not '60s thinking. When you live an urban lifestyle, you have to have an attitude of accommodation and negotiation."
Or, as Heinz Mikota puts it: "I just want to get some sleep."