Keisha Gonzalez

Managing Director, Metro West Community Development Organization

Keisha Gonzalez
Ken Blaze

In the next year or two, Clark/Fulton will boast a long overdue addition to the neighborhood. El Mercado, which will be set in a 30,000-plus-square-foot building on Clark just south of West 25th, will serve as the physical and cultural anchor for the neighborhood, in Ward 14, which has the densest Latin population in the state. Think what the Asia Town Center did for that neighborhood, plus more.

Keisha Gonzalez, managing director of the Metro West Community Development Organization, along with a broad coalition led by councilman Brian Cummins, the Hispanic Business Center, the Hispanic Alliance and other community leaders have been working toward transforming the structure and bringing in anchor tenants who will cover food, culture, arts and more. It follows on the heels of the success of La Placita, the neighborhood's annual summertime market, and the larger mission of La Villa Hispana, which consists of an effort to bolster local businesses.

"I really can't personally take any credit for that," Gonzalez says about the market. "Brian Cummins and people from the Hispanic Business Center ... they literally stood at the intersection and realized how is it that there are so many Hispanics here, so much social vibrancy and interaction, but no physical manifestation of that. They realized if everyone moved their gears simultaneously, we could make a physical development that goes along with the social component that already exists." The HBC is relocating their entire operation to the building, for example, and they're hoping to attract a daycare, offer small business training and coalesce the neighborhood's arts and culture around it.

It's a vitally important development in a neighborhood that, as Gonzalez puts it, sits in between a bunch of "trendy" neighborhoods. It's also one she grew up in and didn't imagine returning to.

"I would say the first time I got exposure outside of the neighborhood was when I went to Magnificat for high school," she says. After one semester at an art and design school, she transferred to Cleveland State and got her bachelors in anthropology with a focus on archaeology. But she didn't have her sights set on Egypt. "CSU had acquired the collection for the Irishtown Bend, so it was urban archeology, picking up cultures in urban settings and figuring out how people lived." She followed with a masters in historic preservation at the University of Delaware. And then she came home, but just for a little bit, she thought. She viewed her first job at Metro West as a temporary one, just something to do until she figured out the long-term career plan. And then she got hooked, serving the same people she grew up with.

"Honestly, it was one of those things," she says. "You learn about CDCs in college and you think that sounds horrible, I never want to work there. But then I started with community organizing here. I knew the streets. I knew the people. It took serving my people to realize it's something I really wanted to do. I realized I was the happiest when my skills and talents were serving the people around me, the people that raised me."

It's those same people who the broad coalition wants to elevate, whether it's at La Placita or El Mercado. "We're not trying to necessarily attract outside business or concepts or entertainment," Gonzalez says. "We really want to tap into the talent and blood that exists in the neighborhood, whether it's testing their toes in entrepreneurship... . La Villa Hispana has been 30 years in the making. It's gone from a social services center to a district agency and now this. It's grown so much."

Clark/Fulton lays claim to the oldest Latin bakery in Cleveland and a slew of other businesses that might not get the recognition or broader support from Northeast Ohio simply because of where they're located. Slowly but surely, that's changing. El Mercado will be a big step, but Gonzalez implores small ones from fellow Clevelanders as well.

"In addition to events, just experiment," she says. "I really want people to be encouraged to not be put off by neighborhoods that sit among the trendy ones. There's so much to be offered, not only in Clark/Fulton but the Brooklyn Centers and the Stockyards and throughout Cleveland, east to west, places that are nestled between the development. Walk the streets, find something to eat." Sounds like good advice to us. — Vince Grzegorek

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