When asked his name, he grunts, picks some more, then moves to the far side of the ruins and resumes digging.
"It is a little strange to have so many fires all at one time," says Charles Burnett, owner of Greene's Hardware store on Broadway. "Most of the buildings were condemned by the city months ago. I don't know what there's left to salvage from in there."
There are lots of things unknown about the fires that have consumed the better part of a block in Slavic Village. The first blaze was a rager that consumed two abandoned buildings on the 7700 block of Broadway on October 3. The electricity was shut off to both buildings, meaning no malfunction or overheated appliance could have been the cause. Moreover, Fire Station 14 sits just 30 feet away, ensuring a quick response that normally would keep a fire from getting out of control. But the buildings burned swiftly and entirely. The cause was immediately obvious.
"This was arson," says Assistant Fire Chief David McNeilly.
Then, at about 1 a.m. on November 21, someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of Forst Motors, a used car dealer on Broadway. The one-story building has cinder-block walls and a concrete roof, making it almost impossible to burn. The fire consumed most of the titles to Mike Forst's cars, but the cars on the lot were undamaged. "Somebody's got to be doing this," says Forst, who's owned the building for 25 years. "There's no way all these fires are happening on their own."
The very next night, right across the street from Forst's lot, a building burned at 7723 Broadway. It was what the fire department calls a "Triple 2," a major outbreak that took 60 firefighters and 12 trucks to extinguish. Two doors down and less than 24 hours later, a smaller fire broke out in a building that used to house Lad's bar. The blaze was contained and the structure saved, but not before it burst out the windows of the first floor and sent flames licking up the green tile walls.
Five days, four fires. Other than Forst Motors, all the buildings had sat vacant for years. And all but the car lot are owned by Slavic Village Development, a nonprofit that redevelops property in the neighborhood. Using city money, the organization bought three of the properties in 2000 for $55,000; it bought Lad's bar a year later for $60,000, according to the county treasurer's office. The plan was to demolish the buildings, making it easier for a private developer to build something new, says Tony Brancatelli, executive director of Slavic Village Development. "We didn't have a specific plan for what would happen to the site."
The properties have the potential to boost a retail strip that already shows signs of progress. In 2001, the Allegheny Child Care Academy moved into a former grocery store across the street from the buildings. At the other end of the block, the Broadway Garden Center is prospering. In between sits Greene's Hardware, a 27-year institution that continues to thrive despite its dark, shabby facade.
But across the street from these successes stood the crumbling buildings of Slavic Village Development. "These buildings remained standing much longer than I as a councilman wanted them to," says Cleveland Councilman Ed Rybka, whose ward includes this stretch of Broadway.
It took months for Slavic Village Development to win a permit to demolish the buildings, and months more to get a federal grant to pay for the work. Demolition was scheduled to begin this week. A few people in the neighborhood find that suspicious. "Isn't it strange that a week before the buildings were supposed to be demolished, they all start burning?" says James Stavole, a former tenant on the block, who was evicted by Slavic Village Development after a rent dispute.
The day before it burned, the back door to Lad's bar stood wide open. Stavole wonders why the organization never bothered to lock it, even after fires consumed four other buildings. "Slavic Village had a lot to gain from these buildings burning. It saved them money on the demolition."
Most people in the neighborhood find such allegations preposterous.
"It doesn't even make sense," Rybka says. "Slavic Village will still have to pay for the demolition of the burned structures."
Brancatelli is more blunt: "We don't arson buildings."
The fire department has no suspects, and it won't release information about how the blazes were set until the investigation is closed, Chief McNeilly says. In the meantime, it has erected a wobbly chain link fence around the entire site. So the man with the shovel moved across the street. Mike Forst let him pick through the remains of his building for scrap.