Street Smart 

The future collides head-on with the past on Prospect Avenue, boulevard of high hopes and dying dreams.

Walking the three disproportionate blocks of Prospect Avenue between Ontario and East Ninth streets is the quickest way to see all of Cleveland. Over the course of a day, the city's entire human spectrum sidles by. In the morning, transvestites near the Domino Lounge give way to construction workers wearing hard hats and tool belts. By noon, shoppers vie with Dilbert-like office workers. Evening brings a flood of white- and blue-collar revelers to the bars, particularly when the Indians or Cavaliers are in town.

The mix of venues along the street is no less diversified, ranging from vintage arcades to new apartments, chain restaurants to pizza counters, interspersed with a quirky collection of shops unlike anything else in the city — or for that matter, in the entire state. The streetscape is equally variegated, with back alleys and parking lots wedged incongruously between gleaming new pub fronts and ornate terra-cotta molding on historic buildings.

It's a remarkable change from just a decade ago, when anyone who had to venture onto Prospect was usually in a hurry to leave. But it's certainly in keeping with the history of the street, which planners at one time imagined as a grand boulevard reaching into the tonier suburbs. That never came to pass, though for a time during the '50s and '60s, Prospect was arguably the epicenter of the emerging rock and roll scene. From those grand dreams to the blight of recent years, Prospect has been a barometer of sorts, a mirror of the broader city's state of mind.

The obvious catalyst in the current resurgence is the Gateway sports complex, but the change on and around Prospect is more complicated than baseballs and basketballs. It's a reflection of the new demand for downtown living and an unprecedented boom in tourists and conventioneers. Moreover, it's a wholesale character change for a keystone of the city, as small retailers and shops are squeezed out by entertainment-driven services like hotels and upscale restaurants.

For better or worse, Prospect is a preview of the future of Cleveland.

Fat City

The blue canopies hanging over the wall-sized windows of Fat Fish Blue, located at the northeast corner of Ontario and Prospect, do a pretty good job of masking the fact that this Creole bar and restaurant is part of a parking garage. Despite its humble concrete beginnings — the former tenant was a Goodyear tire and repair center — Fat Fish Blue is considered the cornerstone of the future Prospect.

That's a lot of pressure riding on the shoulders of a bar whose live music is typically too loud and whose waitstaff hawk T-shirts and glasses like the Hard Rock Cafe. But to many tourists venturing out of their hotels near Public Square, Fat Fish Blue, which opened in 1998, is the first visible sign of life on the streets. The bar also represents the model downtown nightclub — one that's locally owned, distinctive, attracts tourists, and more importantly, draws solid crowds on non-event nights at Gund Arena and Jacobs Field.

"If you want to build a new flavor on the street, you can't do it with [T.G.I.] Friday's," says John Marcus, whose family owns the Euclid and Colonial arcades now under renovation just down the street. Fat Fish Blue owner Steve Zamborsky signed a ten-year lease, giving the corner some potential stability.

One parking-garage tenant is hardly enough, though, to induce people to move beyond the adjoining May Co. building, whose backside sits on Prospect like a giant dirty white dinosaur. Its doors and windows and terra-cotta trim have not been washed in years, as evinced by a thick crust of grime. Homeless people still use the adjacent alley for a boxing ring and urinal.

"May Co. is still an unknown," says Tom Yablonsky, executive director of the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corporation, a nonprofit group overseeing development of Prospect. The most recent plan to revive the building died last month, when Solon-based Weston Realty Inc., citing the cost of renovation, dropped plans to turn the old department store into a 220-room Crowne Plaza Hotel.

City planners believe that redeveloping the May Co. would not only clean up Prospect, but spur development along the other side of the building, which faces Euclid Avenue. It's unlikely that a major department store will ever again occupy that space or any other space downtown. So the city is hoping to convert the building into a hotel, which could most easily capitalize on its size.

The cost of renovation is complicated by the fact that the building already has a tenant — KeyCorp's information technology and check-processing unit, which occupies four floors. KeyCorp's current lease runs through 2003 and gives the bank dirt-cheap rent, which is what keeps it in the city. And Cleveland can't afford to lose 2,000 jobs to the suburbs. In essence, Mayor Michael White has been unwilling to trade those jobs for redevelopment.

"The mayor would have liked to see an upscale hotel," says Executive Assistant for Economic Development Ken Silliman. "It became difficult to do that and retain jobs."

Immediately beyond the May Co., the landscape is equally forbidding until Fourth Street, where the Romanesque Buckeye Building houses Flannery's Pub and, on the upper floors, upscale apartments. Squeezed in between are a pawn shop, jewelry store, and "Deep Discount" outlet. On the south side of the street, the long-standing Goldfish Army-Navy surplus store dominates a sportswear shop and Downtown Eddie's, an unpretentious working-class bar that doesn't even try to attract the suburban swells.

Yablonsky would like to see the entire block go the way of the Buckeye Building, mixing retail and housing. "We're not after new owners," insists Yablonsky. "But the people who own the buildings need to recast them."

That's not likely in the former independent business stronghold of the city. The owners are more inclined to cash out, preferably above market rates. The general feeling among some property owners on Prospect seems to be that, if developers want the properties badly enough, they'll pay.

"The most serious problems we face are property owners who demand prices that the development can't sustain," says John Sandvick of Sandvick Architects, which focuses on historic urban redevelopment. "Some people are asking prices too high for a developer to recover cost. They're hurting development."

Parking Lot of Dreams

The perspective is different when you've been on the avenue for nearly sixty years. Goldfish owner Bill Alpern, a courteous but grumpy man whose employees address him as Sir, sees a fading street rather than one on the rebound.

"[Prospect] hasn't had a rebirth," he says. "Storefronts have been taken over by restaurants. It's not a draw for the retail businesses. People who are going to a basketball or a baseball game don't go shopping." During its heyday, Goldfish had 32 employees. Today, there are just nine.

From behind his cluttered desk on the second floor of his store, Alpern reminisces about better times — like the 1930s, when his father bought the store. Prospect was a vibrant retail street then, full of hardware and furniture stores, jewelers, and men's clothing stores. "We were the first store in the '30s to carry Levi's in Cleveland," he says proudly.

Alpern also fancied himself a trendsetter, claiming to have sold the first bell-bottom pants in the city. "We had one dressing room, and the people were lined up to try them on," he says, digging out a tattered blue scrapbook of yellowed store ads, including one advertising bell-bottoms. In one year during the late 1970s, Alpern says, his store sold 70,000 pairs of "desert boots" at $8.95 per pair: "The cheapest crap I'd ever seen. Made in Spain. You opened the case, and they smelled."

A more hopeful site, at least when you talk to city planners, is the well-lit parking lot on the south side of Prospect, just a few paces beyond East Fourth Street. Currently, the lot is a gold mine for Ampco System Parking, raking in as much as $15 per car during events at Gateway. But the city holds an option to acquire — at 1994 prices — two acres of the property for development.

"The mayor asked us to look closely at it during the last year," says Silliman. "Our view is that the development for this space should be an attraction in and of itself." Silliman would not be more specific, but word on the street is that the city is hoping to attract upscale retail and a multiplex theater.

Fourth Street is a key axis, running perpendicular to Prospect down a narrow canyon of historic buildings to Euclid Avenue. Anchored on both ends by upscale apartment buildings, Fourth is like a tiny slice of Manhattan, punctuated by beauty supply stores, wig shops, and a Runyonesque bar. That will change, too. Plans call for redeveloping much of the street into upscale restaurants and retail shops, with loft-style apartments on the upper floors. (Block owner MRN Limited did not respond to phone calls.)

The biggest redevelopment project on Prospect to date is taking place across from the city's parking lot of dreams. The $32 million renovation of the Colonial and Euclid arcades encompasses a seven-building complex that for years was home to small and unique but sometimes struggling retailers. When complete, the Colonial Marketplace project will include two pedestrian malls and a 180-room Marriott Residence Inn.

Late last month, eight of the previous tenants, including a jeweler, tailor, and coin shop, returned to the arcades. "Rents will go up," acknowledges Colonial Marketplace owner John Marcus, who is developing the project with Robert Rains and John Carney's Landmark Management Inc. "We hope business will improve enough to keep the tenants in here. But we are aggressively pursuing new tenants to fill the 42,000 square feet of retail."

Notoriously deficient in hotel rooms, Cleveland has finally caught the attention of hotel chains for a combination of reasons. "It's more complicated than Gateway," says Sandvick, whose firm designed the Marriott at Colonial Marketplace and the Holiday Inn Express Hotel inside Euclid Avenue's recently converted National City Bank Building. "Housing is helping assist growth downtown. Hotels are looking long-term, ten and fifteen years down the road, as to what the city will be like."

There is also attractive public financing. According to Silliman, tax incentives are available for hotels whose construction involves the preservation of historic buildings. Colonial Marketplace, for example, is receiving public financing in the form of a $4 million TIF (tax increment financing), which uses the first twenty years of property taxes to pay off construction loans for the project.

Lingering Flavors

While it's tempting to speak wistfully of Prospect's past, the truth is that the street has always been viewed as underdeveloped and in need of an improvement plan. Property owners in 1928, for instance, planned to rejuvenate Prospect by creating a "great motor boulevard" stretching from downtown to the eastern suburbs. That plan included developing lower Prospect, most of which falls between Ontario and East Ninth, into an apartment center similar to New York's lower Park Avenue. In 1952, a business association was formed to promote Prospect as a shopping center. The group, whose temporary chairman was Louis Bing, president of Bing Co., wanted better stores, more off-street parking, and improved transportation facilities.

In the 1960s, independent businesses ruled Prospect. Sol Bergman Co., then the city's largest pawnbroker, maintained a private room for blue-chip patrons. The Hofbrau restaurant offered jumbo hot dogs boiled in beer and served with sauerkraut for 50 cents. Jack C. Epstein's music shop carried everything from rare clarinets to a North African oud. Record Rendezvous, which featured listening booths, was a hangout for teenagers drawn to the crazy new music pioneered by Cleveland DJ Alan Freed.

The city will probably never see such a mix of unique and storied retailers again. "You can't recapture Record Rendezvous," says Marcus. "Those things are gone, and you can't recreate them. You hope [brewpub chain] Wallaby's and Fat Fish Blue will create a new flavor."

Yet vestiges of the past linger.

"We've just signed a five-year lease with a five-year option," says Monika Neugebauer, owner of Italian Villa Pizza, which has been at 617 Prospect since 1969. The staying power of this humble, narrow shop comes not from sports facilities or surrounding retail, but from a loyal food following. The lunch special — two slices of pizza, salad, and a Coke for $3.60 — is especially popular.

"Even if I didn't work downtown, I'd still come here," says forty-year-old customer Jerry M. Davis, who's been eating pepperoni and sausage pizza at the Italian Villa since 1980. Davis, known in the neighborhood as DJ, works at the Federal Building as a payroll check processor. He supplements his income selling beer at Jacobs Field, where a slice of pizza costs nearly as much as his entire lunch.

Up to now, Neugebauer and her daughter, Susanna Brown, ran their restaurant as a lunch-only business. But as the neighborhood has changed, so have Neugebauer's hours. Last month, for the first time, she began keeping her shop open late to meet the growing demand of new residents.

"They told me they don't even get home until six o'clock," says Neugebauer, who admits she's not really interested in working more hours. But more customers are on the way.

With the recently completed seventy-unit Huron Square Apartments, just east of Ninth Street, the total number of living spaces along Prospect has jumped to two hundred. Despite the area's complete lack of amenities, like a grocery store, coffee shop, or newsstand, apartments are leasing as fast as they hit the market. And four hundred additional units are on the drawing boards.

Glamour Profession

The glamour mainstay of the Avenue in recent years has been Mr. Albert's Men's World (618 Prospect), which offers fashions so far outside the typical retail box that the store has become an anomaly, not just on the street, but throughout the city. A shopper could easily drop several hundred dollars on a pair of shoes here, if he happened to be fond of pastel ostrich-skin sandals or flaming red alligator dress shoes. Salesmen straighten silk shirts in brilliant oranges, yellows, and greens on crammed racks. The small line of women's dresses features the tight, the bright, and the slight.

The only thing more luminous than the clothes in this place is the pink neon lights that flash "Mr. Albert's" on the wall.

During a recent visit, Mr. Albert himself, a tall, slow-gaited man, emerges from the back of his store to offer some insight on why he has prospered over the last two decades. He removes his thick, black-framed eyeglasses and sets them on the counter.

"We happen to be a destination store," he says, fingering a shiny belt buckle and giving the impression that he's only mildly interested in enlightening his visitor. "We have a mix that appeals to the young, affluent person."

And who might that be? If the snapshots on the front counter are any indication, Mr. Albert's attracts such clientele as Shaquille O'Neal, Otis Williams of the Temptations, Orlando Hernandez of the New York Yankees, former Indian Jose Mesa, former Brown Tony Jones, and the rapper Wish Bone, among others.

"I've seen guys on TV wearing our clothes," boasts sales consultant Bertrand Hall, curiously dressed in earth tones of the Eddie Bauer garden variety.

Albert, who wouldn't give his full name, buys his stock in New York, Las Vegas, and Europe. He gives no indication that his business has been hurt by the development on Prospect. Unlike any of the other shops, he relies on a mix of older, faithful customers who frequent the store and young sports and entertainment stars who hear about his distinctive merchandise.

"It's become a very upbeat street," he says. "Very trendy. A street of restaurants. But it hasn't expanded in the retail area. I would prefer more stores."

So would Young Cho, who, as proprietor of Ann's Wig Shop (629 Prospect), presides over a fading Prospect business. All day long, Cho is surrounded by attractive blondes, silky brunettes, and ravishing redheads. The classic beauties sit motionlessly on his shelves, their lovely locks unmussed by roving fingers and the elements.

Since the rebirth of Prospect as an entertainment strip, Cho's business has plummeted. The young crowds pass by quickly on their way to Wallaby's and Fat Fish Blue. This attitude has rubbed off on Cho, who was reluctant to be named in this article, because he doesn't want his friends in the suburbs to know he owns a wig shop. At the same time, Cho, a devout Catholic, displays a fierce dedication to the store he named after St. Ann.

"I'm a landmark," insists Cho, a Korean man who doesn't look as though he's just a few years away from retirement ("I dye my hair," he explains). "If it were not for my established customers, I would have closed up a long time ago."

Like other holdouts on this street, he believes the city could have done more to preserve the small businesses. Some merchants were unable to weather the parking and the traffic problems created by the two-year street and sidewalk reconstruction project that repaved Prospect, filling in many of the old loading vaults under the sidewalks and reconfiguring parking on the street. Those who are left say the outrageously priced parking lots, along with the street parking bans before and after Gateway events, have killed off the casual shopper.

Cho says that most of his business comes from longtime patrons who live in places like Elyria and Lorain. When they come here, they double-park, rush in, and leave. No one spends much time trying on wigs anymore.

Another business trying to keep up with the times is Mike the Hatter (645 Prospect). In reality, there is no Mike. The hatter's name is George. His father was Pete, and he bought the business from a guy named Mike in 1947.

Deep in the store, past the wall of hats waiting for heads to call home, George Kapottos is straightening out a brim. It's called flanging in the hat business, he explains, obscured in a haze of steam. The flangers — oval-shaped wooden forms that look like toilet seats — are arranged in rows behind him. Some are as old as the business itself.

Many of his customers have been coming to him for decades. To generate new business, Kapottos relies mainly on his Internet website. Not many new customers come in off the street, partly because of larger market trends.

"Hatlessness started with John Kennedy, because he wouldn't wear a hat to his inauguration," Kapottos says. "Then [hat-wearing] got big again with TV shows like Dallas. We're holding on to our middle-aged-to-older customers."

When Kapottos moved his business from its original location on East 55th and Woodland to Prospect in 1972, he claims there was only one empty storefront on the street between Ontario and East Ninth. "You could hardly walk down the sidewalk on Saturdays, it was so packed," Kapottos recalls. Most of the retailers left when Jacobs Field blew out nearby parking. There is still precious little parking, which is why Kapottos offers to pick up his customers' tabs for the garage next door.

A Slice of Suburbia

Across the street from Mike the Hatter sits the Electric Building (700 Prospect), headquarters to the United Church of Christ — a striking contrast to the shabby storefronts and newer bars and restaurants. Its ornate terra-cotta entrance arch, framed by large scrolled brackets of the cornice, is a gracious remnant of another era.

A bit of that era is being restored. Workers are removing large granite panels, which were tacked on the front of the building for security purposes, and replacing them with full-length glass windows. The windows will allow people to look into meeting rooms and through to the Radisson Hotel on the other side of the building.

"No more fortress mentality," notes Yablonsky.

Building Superintendent Robert Morrow has been at the United Church of Christ for the last thirteen years. The early '80s were "real dismal," says Morrow, recalling the drugs and prostitution prevalent on the street at the time. He is less than enthusiastic about the current revival.

"The bars are a good thing, but there's no variety," says Morrow, who is wearing paint-spattered work pants and a white work shirt, a walkie-talkie tucked into his belt. "What's going to happen when people get tired of them? It's quiet when the teams aren't playing. When the basketball players went on strike, it was real dead."

Even the bars don't all benefit from the sports crowds. Downtown Eddie's Andy Koustis, whose family has owned their building at 310 Prospect for 35 years, takes a hit every time the Cavs play. "The Cavs hurt us, because their crowds are too corporate," he says. "They don't come to our place. The games force my happy-hour people out of the parking lots."

Crowds for other events, like concerts and Indians games, are better. But they can only be divided so far. "The size of the pie is the same, but you have ten times more restaurants down here," notes Koustis.

The most obvious beneficiary of the sports dollar is Outta the Park, a licensed sportswear shop. Business has been so brisk that the store, previously located next to Mike the Hatter, moved across the street to the Pointe at Gateway (740 Prospect) in 1998, doubling its sales space. And even seasonal dips should disappear, now that the Browns are back.

Some fans didn't wait for a losing season to find bargains. Late last month, thieves broke the glass in the front door, climbed over the bars, and stole an entire rack of jackets and jerseys (about $12,000 in merchandise disappeared in about a minute's time). The store has elaborate security precautions, such as bulletproof plastic on the windows instead of bars. Still, almost any store is vulnerable when the street is deserted.

"Our door was busted out, and nobody called us about it," complains co-owner Thomas Egan, adding that he would like to see more cops on neighborhood foot patrols.

The trendy, pricey Outta the Park kicks off the avenue's burgeoning entertainment cluster, coalescing near East Ninth Street. The Winking Lizard, a suburban habitué, is the most recent addition, joining Fishbones and the Diamondback Brewery in the unending flow of suds before and after games. And those bars and restaurants should do even better this fall, when new audiences are drawn to the Chicago-based Second City theater company, slated to open at 811 Prospect. Developers are still trying to land a music-themed restaurant by Alice Cooper on the ground floor of the theater.

At this end, Prospect is starting to resemble the Warehouse District, with its monochromatic strips of clubs and restaurants for the well-heeled. "You may not be able to keep all the local character," admits Yablonsky, arguing in the next breath for the uniqueness of Prospect. "The density won't let [another Warehouse District] happen, because the buildings here are much larger."

But the prevailing trends on the avenue are clear, and the likelihood that it will retain any of its colorful historical character seems small. For city planners and developers and affluent suburbanites looking for a slice of mall living downtown, it's all to the good.

For hatters and wigs and blue-collar bars, it's history.

City planners hope tire store-turned-nightclub Fat Fish Blue (upper right ) will draw people and more development to lower Prospect, where longtime retailers are sitting on valuable but largely vacant properties. Fashion for the millennium (clockwise from top left): All-purpose camouflage netting hovers over a full line of survival gear at Goldfish, including used combat boots ($10).

Additional reporting by Jacqueline Marino.


More by Mark Naymik


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