Destination Lakewood

How a bar town became an immigration hot spot.

In 2002, Pittsburgh author and urban studies professor Richard Florida made waves when he declared that the success of new modern cities could be seen in the number of artists, gays, and immigrants they attracted.

At the time, it was a radical thesis, since city halls nationwide remained in hot pursuit of the magic bullet: the large company with the equally large payroll. They were quickly learning, however, that such corporations were more besotted with Calcutta than Cleveland. Florida's organic approach began to take hold.

Gays and artists would reignite the cultural nightlife of dying towns, he theorized. Immigrants would supply the numbers and entrepreneurial talent to replace the evacuation to the suburbs. "On average, [immigrants] are more risk-taking and more enterprising than native-born Americans," says Sanda Kaufman, a national expert on immigration. "They have a bigger desire to achieve."

Four years later, Florida's theories are articles of faith among city planners. But in Cleveland, it never quite worked as planned. Former Mayor Jane Campbell put together a group of consultants to woo immigrants to the city. They suggested advertising in foreign lands to get the city's name out, but those discussions yielded little success.

Yet while Cleveland stumbled, a most unlikely place was making it happen with much less effort.

With 150 liquor licenses in five square miles, Lakewood is best known for its $1 beers and bartenders with an aversion to the light pour. But it's quickly becoming a familiar name, from the Palestinian West Bank to the villages of Eastern Europe.

Go to Lakewood Park on a summer day, and you'll find picnic tables filled with women in burqas. Go to Caribou on a warm afternoon, and you'll find the patio tables occupied by Albanian men gathered for conversation and a smoke. There's an Arabic hairdresser on Madison, an Arabic Baptist Church on Detroit. Kids in the suburb's schools speak 38 different languages.

A century after the Slovaks built this town, the immigrants are coming back.

On a recent night at the Beit Hanina Social Club on Lorain, the West Side Palestinian community is celebrating an engagement aligning two prominent families. It's a chance for young Palestinians, who are permitted little contact with the opposite sex, to check each other out.

Young women dressed in burqas as silky and lacy as window curtains circle the room, pretending not to notice the boys slouching in the corner. But their eyes sneak glances as they pirouette and dance.

The boys blush like shy sixth-graders and quickly look away when they make eye contact. With mating rituals that would seem downright Puritan to most Americans, it's a wonder there are any weddings at all, laughs Elham Sliman.

The first wave of Palestinians arrived after Israel was established in 1948, leaving them without a homeland. Many Arabs arrived in Detroit, seeking jobs at GM and Ford. They came for the same in Cleveland -- and just kept coming. "Immigrants, if you notice, tend to copy each other," says Nasser Ased, unofficial spokesman for the West Side Palestinian community. "This is especially true with the Palestinians. They have no country at the moment, so they follow each other from city to city."

But as the years went by, they began to avoid Cleveland for the same reason the natives did: the horror of the city's schools. So they looked around for better education, equally low rents, and multi-tenant housing where large, extended families could legally reside. Lakewood had it all.

They began opening small groceries across the West Side, in neighborhoods Americans had long evacuated. Today, if there's a small store still operating on a street surrounded by neglect, chances are it's owned by Arab immigrants. After all, U.S. violence is child's play next to what many Palestinians have endured back home.

Word spread that merchants needed help in their stores, so immigrants began arriving in droves. Nahida Farunia's husband arrived from New York to help his brother-in-law open up a Dairy Mart. Elham's father opened up a convenience store and a gas station.

Back home, the increasing violence -- and the joblessness it created -- prompted not just families, but whole villages to move. Today, the Beit Hanina Social Club has around 8,000 people, all from the Palestinian town of Beit Hanina, where only 1,000 residents remain.

"I was at home at a few weddings, and I kept saying that they all seemed so empty," says Abdelbaset Sbeih, who moved to Lakewood when he first moved here. "Then I went to a wedding here and said, 'Oh, this is where everyone is.'"

Beit Hanina isn't the only town to witness mass exodus. Similar evacuations took place in the neighboring towns of Ramallah and Bireh, transporting entire villages to Lakewood, where they maintain a healthy distance from each other the way rival high schools do. For these clans, the competition has become truly American -- to see who has the better cars, more expensive jewelry, superior clothing.

"It's kind of like the competitiveness between neighboring towns' football teams," Sliman explains. "It's based on tradition."

Assimilation has not come easy, for their clannish protectiveness can be both good and bad. Once, an Arab girl at Lakewood High was spotted walking home with a black male student. Her mother and uncles were called. The girl was threatened for bringing dishonor to the community. She dropped out of school.

It wasn't an isolated incident.

"I get calls all the time from people telling me they saw my children hanging out with people of the opposite sex," says Farunia. "I laugh it off. I trust my children, and they trust me."

Things weren't so friendly for the community after the terrorist attacks. The Beit Hanina Social Club had rocks thrown at its window. Someone rammed a car into Sliman's mosque in Parma. A woman, sitting in a burqa at a Lakewood public pool, was told she'd be kicked out if she didn't take off her head scarf. A nun dressed in full regalia was sitting next to her. The Arab woman was booted. Nothing was said to the nun.

But Palestinians say they understand the anger. "The attacks were horrible," says Sbeih. By contrast, "We didn't face anything outrageous."

Like many first-ring suburbs, Lakewood has faced flight of its own, losing nearly one-third of its population since the 1970s. Ironically, its adult population remains largely unchanged. The decline was mainly caused by birth patterns. Thirty years ago, families with five or more kids were common in this heavily Catholic area. Today's standard is closer to two.

But the influx of immigrants has been critical, given Lakewood's traditional place in Northeast Ohio's own migration pattern. It's been going on for decades: As families prosper, they tend to flee their small yards and congested streets for spacious and wealthier suburbs to the west.

"The pattern that's always been since I was a boy is to move to Cleveland, then Lakewood, then end up in Rocky River or Westlake," says Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough.

Adds state Representative Michael Skindell: "Lakewood is the first stop in becoming a citizen. They come here because they know family and friends. There's easy access to jobs and to grocery stores. But once they move up, you see them move to other parts of the community."

The suburb is holding steady not just with the help of Arabs, but with the continuing stream of Eastern Bloc immigrants from Albania, Romania, Latvia, and Serbia, who've made it a destination point since the Iron Curtain fell.

Today, "Most of the users of our low-interest loan programs are from the immigrant population," says city planning director Thomas Jordan. Since more than half of Lakewood's housing is rental and nearly all is close to a century old, it's a recipe for another first-ring suburban ghetto. But the influx of immigrants has ushered stability and rebirth.

Nearly 20 percent of those in the city's down-payment assistance program are resident aliens. The number would be much higher, says Jordan, if migrants who'd achieved citizenship were added. "We like that because it's people making an investment in Lakewood," says Jordan. "It's better than having renters."

Yet there remain problems with having so many cultures collide in just five square miles.

Lakewood schools, always known for respectable academics, have failed the national report card three years in a row, largely due to the rise in immigrant students, who struggle to adapt to language and curriculum. "No Child Left Behind has labeled us a failure because of the number of special-ed and [English as a second language] students we have," says superintendent David Estrop.

As a result, the district was forced to send a citywide letter informing residents that their schools weren't up to federal standards. If they fail a fourth year, the state has the right to take over the school system.

In the classroom, the collisions can be just as jarring. Kathe Stack, a former assistant principal at Horace Mann Middle School, was used to parents' complaints about teachers: "too much homework" and even "not enough homework." But the migrants brought a whole new set of variables.

"One Arabic gentleman would not speak with me because I was a woman," Stack says. "He kept saying he wanted to talk to the man in charge."

City Hall also deals with calls. There are limits on the number of people who can live in single-family homes, but extended families of many immigrants tend to live under one roof. When a daughter gets married, the new husband moves in too. "You're not supposed to have more than two families in a single-family home," says Clough. "But the question is, how do you define a family? A sister and brother are also family members."

And grudges, beefs, and prejudice carried from the old country aren't easily defused.

When Scene sent a photographer to the Beit Hanina Social Club, he was accosted by angry members, who told him that the paper "is run by a bunch of Jews." They wanted to know whether the writer of the story is Jewish. [She is.]

When the photographer refused to tell them, they asked whether he too was a Jew. [He's a Czech immigrant.] Then, before he left they told him they wanted nothing to do with a "Jew-owned" paper [it's owned by the Irish].

So much for everyone living happily together.

In Lakewood, the celebration of Albanian Independence Day is almost as big as it is in the homeland. Two years ago, instead of celebrating with his countrymen, former Albanian President Rexhep Meidani came to Lakewood to raise his toast.

Their migration began in the 1990s after the end of communist rule. Finally free to leave, people fled in droves -- mostly to France, Greece, and Italy. The plane ride to the United States took two days, and what little they knew about America wasn't tempting.

"For years, all that was shown on TV by the dictator was how terrible the United States was," says Anila Nicklos.

But in 1992, Hasan Bakia, Albania's director of the Institute of Oil, was sent to the U.S. on business. While he was gone, his political party fell from power. Bakia was scared about his country's instability, so he applied for a temporary visa.

He moved to Lakewood, where he worked a variety of odd jobs, from newspaper deliveryman to taxicab driver. He kept in touch with family and friends in his hometown of Fier, writing to them about the beauty of Lakewood. But back home, freedom had created new difficulties.

After the fall of communism, Albanians were responsible for investing their own money for the first time. Corrupt companies managed to convince thousands of them to purchase stakes in pyramid schemes, with promises of 1,000 percent returns. In early 1997, several pyramids collapsed, leaving investors bankrupt, disillusioned, and angry. Albanians stormed the streets. Armed revolts broke out across the country, leading to the near-total collapse of government. Many wanted out.

That's how much of Fier village ended up in Lakewood.

"People tend to go to where there are other people like themselves," says immigration expert Kaufman. "They don't look so much into job opportunities . . . It's all about going where there are other immigrants like them."

One of those was Anila Nicklos, who arrived in 1997. In her crumbling red brick apartment building on Madison Avenue, she was shocked to see that everyone was Albanian. "It was like everyone left Albania and moved to this one building," she says. Nicklos didn't even know Lakewood was its own city. In the beginning, she addressed her envelopes "Lakewood, Cleveland, Ohio."

Sako Satka, a real estate investor, also arrived in Lakewood in 1997. His family of six stayed with his brother-in-law in a small home while he got settled. But he was ready to make his move.

"In Albania, all you can do is dream," he says. "Here, you can work those dreams."

Satka began by leasing parking lots in Cleveland. Then he bought two downtown buildings, as well as the now-closed Titanic restaurant and the Ohio Bell building in Lakewood.

Nearly a decade later, he knew he'd arrived when he bought what's perhaps the suburb's most stately home, a historic mansion on Lake Avenue that had fallen into disrepair. The house reminded him of the grandiose, fairy-tale embassies back home.

When Satka first moved to Lakewood, he and his son would walk by the house, trying to glimpse the yard between the bristling bushes. When he bought it for $610,000 at a sheriff's auction, the first thing he did was cut the brush, exposing the mansion for everyone to see.

Satka, a jubilant man with a Santa Claus belly, is also responsible for the growing Albanian population. He's sponsored 25 families in their move to Lakewood. He's given financial grants to start businesses and employed dozens in his shops. When he leased the parking lots downtown, he let every Albanian who worked nearby park for free.

Thanks to these small efforts, Albanian national TV now airs glowing features on the beauty of Lakewood. One student says there are even fliers in coffee shops, urging people to move to Lakewood. Around Ohio, Albanians come up to Lakewood Mayor Tom George and address him as "my mayor."

But not every dream ends so happily.

Bakia and his wife, Mirjana, now face deportation. In 2002, his application for political asylum was denied, and his visa had run out. His lawyer had one month to file an appeal, but missed the deadline. Bakia's son, who came here legally in 1997, has filed for a visa for his mother and father under the united family policy, but it may be too late.

The couple now sits in jail in Bedford Heights, awaiting deportation.

"It is very sad," says Satka.

Jeanette Sgambellone, an ESL teacher at Lincoln Elementary, was called to an emergency in the cafeteria. One of her foreign students was refusing to eat her hot dog. The student, Sgambellone soon realized, thought she was being forced to eat a pet. Sgambellone couldn't make her understand that it wasn't a real dog. They finally reached a compromise: "I said she could throw out the hot dog if she ate the bun."

Not all the kids' problems are so easy to solve. With students who speak 38 different languages, Lakewood is one of the most diverse districts in Ohio. When Sgambellone arrived eight years ago, she quickly learned that her job went far beyond teaching ABCs. She became the school's cultural ambassador, called in daily to translate language and custom.

There was the boy who wore a three-piece suit every day. Sgambellone had met this boy's parents once, noticing they were visibly awed by her position. (That's the good thing about ESL kids, she says. Parents think that "teachers are the end-all, be all.") Eventually, she had to tell the parents that as important as school was, it wasn't necessary to wear formal attire every day.

But not all problems are so innocent. A few years ago, a recent Albanian transplant was having trouble learning his vocabulary words. He was shown a picture of a parrot and asked to identify the photo. The student said it was a bird. The teacher told the boy that it was actually a parrot. The boy became agitated. He pulled a picture of himself from his book bag that showed him holding a large machine gun.

"In my country, I am a man," he said. "In this country, I am a boy because I do not know the word parrot."

Assistant Principal Kathe Stack used to tell students to "look her in the eye" when she was talking to them. It was only after she became supervisor of the ESL program that she realized that in Arab culture, for instance, looking a woman directly in the eye is a sign of disrespect, something their parents told them never to do.

And there remains the larger issue of success -- at least the American version. The No Child Left Behind Act made schools slaves to standardized tests, seemingly made for the kind of places congressmen live, not where the old world brushes shoulders with the new. It's not easy assimilating young boys raised on machine guns or young Muslim girls reluctant to speak to male teachers. Even some faculty resent the money and effort spent bringing immigrant kids along.

"My first year, I had a teacher say to me that the ESL program was taking money away from the normal kids," Sgambellone sighs. "Like ESL kids aren't normal."

But there are a few stories that drive educators like Stack. The tale of nine-year-old Ana Guerra comes to mind.

When she arrived from Honduras last year, she spoke little English and was scared to get on a plane. It was a glorious morning when she arrived in Lakewood. As she watched the sun hit the still, blue waters of Lake Erie, a smile stretched across her young lips.

"I was like whoa," Guerra remembers. "This city is so pretty. It looks just like Honduras."