Cleveland's Hispanic community held its final La Placita event of the summer, La Gran Fiesta, on a humid mid-August day when the skies were threatening rain.
The Hispanic themed open-air summer market, which takes place every third Saturday in June, July and August at the corner of Clark Avenue and West 25th Street, had attracted a sizeable crowd by mid-afternoon. Local entrepreneurs sold empanadas, pina coladas and Latin Ice treats; neighborhood artists sold jewelry and artwork; dentists from MetroHealth provided free oral screenings; and hospital police provided gun safety information and gun locks. Eventually, several thousand people filled the U.S. Bank parking lot, eating, drinking and dancing the night away as the sounds of Latin music filled the air.
At one point, in typically capricious Cleveland fashion, the clouds opened up and rain poured down, but the mariachi band never missed a beat. As the weather cleared up, they kept right on playing and people kept dancing.
Given what the Clark-Fulton neighborhood has been through in the past decade — half of its houses have gone into foreclosure, neighborhood storefronts have remained empty and dark, and Ariel Castro held three women captive before their dramatic escape caught the world's attention — La Placita is just one, although maybe the most public-facing, of the bright spots for the neighborhood.
"It was a joy to see the diversity of who was there," says Jenice Contreras, director of the Northeast Ohio Hispanic Center for Economic Development (better known as the Hispanic Business Center or HBC), which started La Placita five years ago and has grown it through grit and perseverance against stiff headwinds. "We see families rolling their strollers down the street, folks from other neighborhoods coming in, and folks coming in from all over the place."
La Placita's success is just the beginning, community leaders say. In the next three to four years, MetroHealth will spend more than $1 billion on its campus transformation plan, including a new 10-story hospital tower and 12-acre green space. It will also spend an additional $60 million on 250 units of market-rate and affordable housing. Three new buildings that are slated to be built on West 25th will include first-floor restaurants, a grocery store, headquarters for Metro's police department, and an economic opportunity center called the HOPE Institute that will offer job training and other services.
"This is a way for the campus to be a part of the neighborhood, and not just a place you can go when you get sick," says Greg Zucca, MetroHealth's director of community and economic transformation. "We're hoping this is going to catalyze others to invest in the neighborhood, and do it in a way that really creates a mixed-income neighborhood, that creates market opportunities so that as people move up, they don't move out."
Already that's starting to happen. More than $60 million in additional development is planned or underway in Clark-Fulton, including the $14 million CentroVilla25 project, which will provide year-round incubator space for Latino entrepreneurs; the $13 million Astrup building renovation, a new westside arts and nonprofit hub for the Cleveland Museum of Art, Inlet Dance Theater, LatinUS Blackbox Theater, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Cleveland Center for Missing, Abducted and Exploited Children and Adults being launched by Castro survivor Gina DeJesus and her cousin Sylvia Colon; the new $10 million Tremont Animal Clinic; the revived $3 million Aragon Ballroom; the $18 million J. Spang Bakery apartment renovation; Platform's Phunkenship sour beer making facility and event space; and several others.
"We didn't have help, we didn't have anybody giving us direction, we didn't really have anything," says Sylvia Colon, who kept looking for DeJesus when many others had given up hope. "It was all trial and error. When Gina came home, we talked about establishing a place for families. We want to be a soft place for a family to land, when they have an adult or child missing."
And for the first time in the neighborhood's history, young Latino leaders are in charge. In 2017, Jasmin Santana ran against incumbent councilman Brian Cummins in what Scene called "Cleveland's ugliest city council race," ultimately becoming the first Latina councilperson in the city's history. At the time, the area was being served by a CDC that was overseen by Detroit Shoreway Community Development. Santana has partnered with others to create a new CDC, Metro West CDC, that is now led by 27-year-old neighborhood resident Ricardo Leon .
"I say it's time," says Santana, who grew up in the area and now lives on Marvin Avenue in the Jones Home Historic District. "We have new leadership that is passionate, energized, and from the neighborhood. It's really about executing and making things happen. We know that if things don't happen, it will be our neighborhood that suffers."
Given that Clark-Fulton is sandwiched between three developed neighborhoods, all of which are becoming more expensive and running out of developable land and property, and that it's close to downtown and has good highway and RTA access, it makes sense that things will happen. Yet Santana is worried that Hispanics will get priced out of the neighborhood as it improves. Already, real estate speculators are buying up property, landlords are sitting on empty buildings, and prices and rents are going up. Santana says that equitable development is needed to create more home-ownership and business opportunities for existing residents and entrepreneurs.
"With all of the development happening, this will be the next Ohio City or Tremont," says Santana, making it clear that she welcomes development but is concerned about gentrification. She is working with Metro West and others to create a master plan to help guide development activity. "If people are displaced, there will be nowhere else to go."
Despite being home to over 11,000 residents and the densest population of Hispanic and Latino residents in the state of Ohio, Clark-Fulton has for many years lacked the kind of visible Latino-owned businesses that thrive in many other cities. Go to Minneapolis and there's the 20-year-old Mercado Central, which is home to more than 35 small businesses, including a tortilla maker that earns more than $1 million in revenue per year. Mercado Central operates as a cooperative, allowing Hispanic businesses to access training and funding. Yet Cleveland has nothing besides a few bakeries and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, as good as they are once you stumble on them. A handful of food businesses are operated out of houses, sometimes because people have lacked guidance and loans to get started in a brick-and-mortar space, sometimes because they're undocumented, and sometimes both.
"It seems like a lot of people speed by the ward until they get to Old Brooklyn," says Santana. "There's so much blight, and many of the businesses we have are not beneficial to the neighborhood. We want places we can take our families to eat, where we can get Wi-Fi and coffee, where our youth can hang out. Oftentimes we have to leave the ward, and we don't get a lot of outsiders visiting."
Yet over the past few years, Hispanic businesses have been quietly growing in the neighborhood. Caribe Bake Shop and Panaderia las Villas Bakery recently expanded on Fulton Road, while mainstays such as La Morenitas on West 25th and El Taino on Scranton dish up flavorful cuisine. Las Tienditas del Mercado, a small business incubator run by HBC out of a former neighborhood store at West 25th and Seymour, houses business startups such as El Sabor de Ponce sandwich shop, Lara's Cakes and Ortiz Art Drafts Design, which specializes in printing T-shirts and other merchandise.
Contreras and others want to build on this momentum to create La Villa Hispana, a Hispanic business district at West 25th and Clark. Its centerpiece will be CentroVilla25, a new marketplace, community center and office building at Blatt Court and West 25th. CentroVilla25 will provide space for entrepreneurs, a commercial kitchen, year-round cultural arts programming, a health and wellness center, several retailers and an anchor restaurant tenant. It will also provide office space for three neighborhood groups: the Hispanic Business Center, Metro West CDC, and Esperanza, a nonprofit that works to improve the academic achievement of Hispanic youth. The La Villa Hispana concept has been around since at least the late 1980s, but it's gotten new life in the past five years with La Placita. Now Hispanic leaders hope to finally realize their dream with CentroVilla25, an ambitious project that is not yet fully funded.
Local entrepreneurs are sorely lacking affordable, ready space in the neighborhood, and Contreras says CentroVilla25 will fill that gap, allowing Hispanic businesses to access services and capital that will help them grow in the community — before they're priced out. Ultimately, as properties are fixed up, they could expand into nearby storefronts. "The challenge is there's no ready space," she says. "It's either a ton of money to fix up or it's completely dilapidated."
It seems worth noting that CentroVilla25 is less than a mile from the West Side Market, where a number of Hispanic entrepreneurs have started businesses but have never seemed to get more than a toehold in the local economy. In fact, with vacancies abounding in the produce section of the West Side Market, upcoming vacancies in the main hall, controversy over hours and days of operation, and more and more calls for nonprofit ownership, one could argue that Ohio City's success has not definitively translated into long-term success for the market, which is struggling even as the neighborhood thrives.
Because HBC will own the space as a nonprofit entity, they can afford to be selective and use it as a feeder to help grow local businesses. In the past year, HBC says it has served more than 500 clients, created nearly 200 jobs, retained 295 jobs, provided access to more than $8.3 million in capital, and contributed to 61 new business starts. CentroVilla25 is projected to create or expand 60 employment or business opportunities, according to marketing materials provided by HBC.
Some local entrepreneurs are chomping at the bit to move into CentroVilla25, even though it's not projected to be move-in ready for another year or two. Luis Cartagena, an accountant and business advisor on West 25th who works with Latino businesses, says that he would have already moved in if space was available. "It's important that we help get more Latino businesses started in the area," he says. "There's development to my right and development to my left."
Herman Ortiz, who opened up Ortiz Art Drafts Design four years ago after moving here from Puerto Rico, also says he needs more space to grow his business. HBC recently installed a trailer in the adjacent lot to allow him to keep printing merchandise while he's housed at Las Tienditas. Ultimately, he hopes to move into CentroVilla25 once the first phase is completed.
Lalo Rodriguez of the Latin American coffee shop Cafe Social LatinoAmericano hopes that CentroVilla25 will help draw a critical mass of businesses. He started in Las Tienditas before moving inside Las Dos Fronteras, a Mexican restaurant on Fulton, but so far, it's been a struggle. "Being on West 25th in the right location would bring in walking traffic to your business," he says.
CentroVilla25's success is far from guaranteed. Although HBC currently only has about 40 percent of the $14 million it needs for the project, they took ownership of the buildings in September and hope to begin relocating existing tenants. According to the budget, the group has raised $2.8 million in tax credit equity, $100,000 from the state capital budget, $2,875 from the city of Cleveland, $500,000 from the Cleveland Foundation, $440,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and $100,000 from the Forest City Realty Trust. Additionally, they've secured a $500,000 acquisition loan from Cleveland Development Advisors. That's about $6.5 million total, leaving a $7.5 million gap. Contreras says the group is working on raising the rest of the funds.
The HBC recently closed on a $939,000 acquisition of the project site, the former HJ Weber Building. Groundbreaking is projected to take place in 2020, but it may need to be broken into phases. Contreras says the reason why plans for La Villa Hispana failed in the past is because of a lack of strong leadership and coordination among partners. Previous planning efforts didn't include the neighborhood, she said, but things have changed now that younger Latino leaders are in place. "I feel the secret sauce is the level of collaboration," she says, citing the fact that the councilperson, CDC, HBC, MetroHealth and private and institutional investors are all working together.
"The purpose of La Villa Hispana is to recognize that this is a vibrant community and we need opportunities to thrive," she says. "This will be a hub of economic opportunity, a place to share our culture, food and art."
Most people probably don't realize how quickly real estate prices are going up in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood south of I-90, which for years was considered a no-go area for renters and homebuyers who were looking in Ohio City and Tremont. Yet today, price appreciation in those areas is pushing some developers and would-be residents to cross the tracks, and that's driving fairly rapid price appreciation in the area.
Even though the neighborhood has not yet seen highly visible changes, behind the scenes, some not-so-subtle shifts are occurring. For example, from 2016 to 2018, the median home sales price in the neighborhood went up by 20 percent, from $30,000 to $36,000, according to information obtained from Metro West CDC. Through June 2019, the latest data available, it's already jumped up to $49,000. At the same time, the number of sales increased from 350 in 2017 to 680 in 2018.
That's a far cry from when Ricardo Leon was growing up: "My intention was always to get out," he says. "That's what people said growing up: 'Get an education, get out as soon as you can, and get your mom out.'" Instead, after graduating from John Hay High School and Baldwin Wallace University, Leon worked at several companies before pursuing a master's degree at the Levin College of Urban Affairs. As managing director of Metro West, he now lives and works in the neighborhood.
"I'm the only person I know who's gone to school and stayed here," says Leon. "Two of my friends are in L.A., another is in jail. Now my office is a half-mile from my house."
Living in a neighborhood that didn't believe it had a future pushed him to work in community development, though. Now, Leon says that for Clark-Fulton to be equitably revitalized, neighborhood residents must benefit from changes. "What happens in too many vulnerable communities is that development happens to people, not with people," he says. "They just end up getting railroaded and run over. We want to make sure they have a voice in the process, that whatever happens, it benefits them too."
Oh, and another thing: He's already over the neighborhood being called the next Ohio City, even though that moniker may be somewhat inevitable as development encroaches southward. "We're the working-class holdout" sandwiched between Ohio City, Tremont and Old Brooklyn, he says. "People say, 'Oh, aren't you glad your community will finally be thriving?' Our neighborhood's been thriving for years. Just because you weren't here doesn't mean it wasn't thriving."
Unfortunately, Leon says, speculators interested in short-term profits are buying up many of the properties in Clark-Fulton, raising the stakes that the neighborhood could be subject to the kind of predatory development that inflates values without creating more homeownership or equity for residents. "A lot of the transfers were to LLCs, people buying to rent or to flip. We see people do the bare minimum to cash flow, cash flow till they're dry, and then sell again."
To counter this, Leon boasts of working with the councilperson and HBC to bring MetroHealth to the table to build more than 250 new housing units, the first phase of which will be affordable; lobbying to make the area the only westside neighborhood that is part of the mayor's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative; and beating out six other city neighborhoods to win $3 million in affordable housing tax credits through the state's FHAct50 program, named after the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.
Metro West also has several programs aimed at boosting the area's 40-percent homeownership rate, which is consistent with the city of Cleveland's rate but much lower than Cuyahoga County's 57.7 percent. In recent years, the CDC has transferred over 200 previously abandoned homes to new owners, many of them owner-occupants. The group also helps people rehab their homes and uses code enforcement to improve housing conditions for renters.
As activity ramps up in the neighborhood, Leon says the neighborhood master plan will help bring residents together and create a guidebook for development with equity in mind. Metro West has secured $250,000 in funding to complete the plan, which is expected to be completed by spring 2020. Given that much of the development activity in the neighborhood is currently planned but has not yet taken place, now is the time to influence its direction, he says.
Metro West is not the only one interested in equitable development — some private developers are too. Another unique project, the Astrup building, aims to help arts groups stay in the neighborhood as it becomes redeveloped. Although artists often help improve poor, struggling neighborhoods like Clark-Fulton, building up the cool factor with their bootstrap, DIY ethos, they're also often the first ones to get pushed out as rents inevitably go up. Astrup's westside arts hub aims to provide critical services to the community and help tenants build equity at the same time.
Developer Rick Foran, who also developed the West 25th Street Lofts project at West 25th and Church, is passionate about the Astrup building in part because it abuts Castro's former house of horrors. "Part of what we're doing is taking arts and bringing them to the community, and we're also taking back part of Seymour Avenue," he says. "We want to reposition the reputation of Cleveland that was besmirched. When that happened, it drove me crazy to see the news media camped out at West 25th every time I got off the highway to go to work in the morning."
Robin VanLear, head of the community arts department for Cleveland Museum of Art, says that her aim is to bring more programs to the Hispanic community. "The excitement could stretch all the way from the West Side Market to MetroHealth, and to me it's exciting to be a part of that," she says. "It would be nice if all parts of Cleveland had access to the same culture and energy."
Contreras agrees, arguing that despite the fact that Latinos comprise an increasing share of the population and are starting businesses at a faster rate than their white counterparts, they often struggle to reach the $1 million sales mark, a key indicator for many lenders that a business is successful. With additional support, she says, they could realize their untapped potential.
"I've seen the community activate in a way I've never seen before," she says. "We're awake and we're paying attention."
One of those entrepreneurs is Lyz Otero, who together with her husband/business partner Gerson Velasquez is trying to open Half Moon Bakery on West 25th right across from MetroHealth. The couple, who have worked as pastry chefs for such luminaries as Michael Symon and Zach Bruell, have experienced every conceivable kind of delay while trying to start their new business, including bad landlords, unscrupulous contractors and speed bumps with their financing. Yet Otero says they're nearing the finish line, and her avid customer base keeps her going.
"Every time I say we should just stop, and go live like normal people, I get emails from people saying, 'I've been waiting so long for Half Moon Bakery to open' and organizations like Metro West help us," says Otero. "That's encouraged me to follow my dream."