"These are some of the first shots that people other than our longtime members will see of the place," says Anthony Trzaska as I tweet out a few Instagram photos with my smartphone.
We're standing in the 95-year-old barroom of the Slovenian National Home in Slavic Village, one of eight such places scattered about the city. When Slovenians began to settle in large numbers in Cleveland, they erected grand social clubs like this one for like-minded neighbors to meet, eat and play.
Trzaska, an attorney at Dubyak Connick Sammon & Bloom, grew up within these four walls. His First Communion party took place here, as did most of his birthday parties, and he's attended more Lenten fish fries and polka dances than he can accurately recall. Both his parents and grandparents, like every other young couple of their respective generations, held their wedding receptions here. So when Trzaska learned that the place literally was on its last legs, he immediately got involved.
"I joined the board when I learned that the organization was considering selling the building," Trzaska says of the historic landmark. "This place is a family member. The decision to get involved was as much of a no-brainer as performing resuscitation on your grandmother."
Like many ethnic meeting halls, the National Home is suffering from the one-two punch of escalating costs and declining membership. The 100-year-old building needs constant upkeep, yet the Slovenian population of Slavic Village is a deflating quantity. Business as usual would mean a slow and steady death for this cherished neighborhood asset.
"It's nobody's fault," Trzaska says. "We're a victim of changing demographics."
To alter the depressing and seemingly inevitable course of history, Trzaska set about to make the property relevant, appealing and sustainable. He created the position of Director of Development and proceeded to fill it with himself. New branding and marketing efforts followed, and "The Nash on East 80th" was born. "We've been calling it The Nash forever anyways," he says, adding that Nash is shorthand for National.
With new events like open bowling joining long-running staples like polka parties and Lenten Fish Frydays, Trzaska hopes to introduce in a new wave of fans to the Old World establishment. Given the goods, that shouldn't be too difficult. Built in 1919, the rambling complex features a grand ballroom and stage, not at all unlike the Beachland Ballroom. A lower lever "Lounge and Lanes" area is outfitted with a dozen bowling lanes and a bar so old, it only has a men's room; ladies weren't always welcome.
For $8, we all purchase Nash cups, which come filled with draft beer and entitles the bearer to $1 house drafts thereafter, including future visits. We lace up our rental shoes and bowl the night away, scoring our games manually as little has changed since the lanes were installed in 1949. Trzaska, who doubles as the cook, dishes up his soon-to-be-famous Nash Nosh, snacks that put a modern spin on traditional Eastern European food. When the shoe rental guy isn't disinfecting the insides of communal footwear, he's acting as the house DJ. The weird, wacky and wonderful evening is precisely the sort of only-in-Cleveland experience that leaves your Facebook and Instagram pals jealous that they missed out.
Already nights like these are beginning to have a positive effect, says Trzaska. "It's been amazing to see the use of the Nash increase — and at a pace faster than I expected," he says. "We're experiencing this awesome transition and overlap of the New Wave and the Old World."
Of course, the plight of the Nash is no different from the other National Homes in the area — it's just at a different point in its trajectory. Alan Glazen recently rescued Collinwood's Slovenian Workmen's Home, which was established back in 1926. His plans include adding a microbrewery to the existing bar and bocce facilities. The largest Slovenian National Home in the area, located on St. Clair Avenue since 1924, has enjoyed a recent boost in use thanks to various Cleveland Flea events.
"This is something really important that we all have to figure out," says Stephanie Sheldon, founder of the Cleveland Flea. "How do we branch that old and new? How do we get people who are younger to appreciate the history and architecture of these old buildings and old neighborhoods?"
But, she adds, the obligation to support these treasures doesn't fall solely upon us. "These places need to step up their game to make their places economically viable."
Trzaska sees the battle ahead much larger than one building's plight. "I refer to the Nash as the perfect microcosm for the Slavic Village neighborhood," he says. "The Nash defines the ethnic population that settled Slavic Village 100 years ago, and while those people still exist, those faces aren't being replaced by anybody."
"But I believe we are on the cusp of what could be the greatest regentrification story in the city of Cleveland," he adds.
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